The way John McCain tells it, the injuries he suffered at the hands of his captors in Vietnam would have ended his career as a Navy pilot were it not for the help of physical therapist Diane Rauch. And that’s basically true: after months of painful treatment, he was well enough to pass his medical screening. But that leaves out an interesting part of the story. In his biography of McCain, Robert Timberg details the treatment McCain received at two naval hospitals. Navy doctors in Maryland were, in fact, McCain’s first physical therapists, but they offered a bleak prognosis. Fortunately for McCain, the story of his imprisonment and torture was so widely known that strangers from across the country offered assistance. One of those strangers was Rauch, who provided her services at no charge.
As a vignette, it’s charming–a POW, just released from a long and brutal stretch in captivity, finally stumbling upon some good fortune. But it’s hardly a working model for veterans’ health services. Most vets, after all, need government-provided treatment for the rest of their lives–first, like McCain, at military hospitals and then, unlike McCain, at VA facilities.
Thirty-five years after McCain’s return to the United States, the Veterans Health Administration has undergone a sea change. Once a national embarrassment, it is now among the highest-functioning public bureaucracies. In fact, it’s the best health system, public or private, in the country. (Military hospitals are a different story altogether, managed not by the Veterans Administration but by the armed services. To many, the words “military hospital” evoke images of the Soviet-style decay uncovered by journalists at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.)
Times have changed since McCain needed veterans services so urgently. And for many of those thirty-five years, McCain, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, the candidate who talks the best talk on veterans issues, has demonstrated a tendency to work against veterans’ interests, voting time after time against funding and in favor of privatizing services–in other words, of rolling back the VA’s improvements by supporting some of the same policies that wrecked Walter Reed.
During a March 2005 Senate budget debate, McCain voted to kill an amendment that would have “increase[d] veterans medical care by $2.8 billion in 2006.” That amendment lacked an assured funding stream, but lest one mistake this incident for a maverick’s stance against budget-busting, there’s more. Just a year later McCain voted against an amendment that would have “increase[d] Veterans medical services funding by $1.5 billion in FY 2007 to be paid for by closing corporate tax loopholes.” Two days after it failed, he voted to kill “an assured stream of funding for veterans’ health care that [would] take into account the annual changes in the veterans’ population and inflation to be paid for by restoring the pre-2001 top rate for income over $1 million, closing corporate tax loopholes and delaying tax cuts for the wealthy.” That amendment died quietly, forty-six to fifty-four.
In September 2006 McCain voted to table an amendment to a Defense appropriations bill that would have prevented the department from contracting out support services at Walter Reed. The amendment was indeed tabled–by a vote of fifty to forty-eight, the sort of margin a true veterans’ senator might have been able to flip if he really cared about veterans’ healthcare.
“John McCain voted against veterans in 2004, ’05, ’06 and ’07,” says Jeffrey David Cox, who spent twenty-two years as a VA nurse before moving to the American Federation of Government Employees, where he serves as secretary-treasurer (AFGE represents employees of several federal agencies, including the VA). Cox is right. Under Bush, McCain has voted for measures that target so-called Priority-7 and Priority-8 veterans (those whose injuries are not service-related and whose incomes are above a low minimum threshold) for annual fees, higher co-pays and even suspended enrollment. Priority-7 veterans without dependents earn more than $24,644 annually. Priority-8 veterans without dependents earn an annual minimum of $27,790.