COLUMBIA, S.C. — Republican presidential hopeful Jeb Bush wants to privatize more veterans care, make it easier to fire federal employees found responsible for poor treatment and overhaul the Pentagon to prioritize an increase in the number of active troops.
The former Florida governor announced those and other veterans policy ideas Monday to open a two-day swing in the early voting state of South Carolina, where he visited a Veterans Affairs medical facility in Charleston and held a town hall-style meeting with veterans in Columbia.
He also outlined his pitch in a National Review op-ed published Monday, and he plans a national security forum Tuesday in Rock Hill, South Carolina, continuing a weeklong emphasis on military and international affairs.
At his veterans' town hall, Bush said neither Congress nor President Barack Obama's administration has adequately addressed the delayed care for veterans or the disclosures that some Veterans Affairs employees manipulated records to downplay the backlog. But Bush directed most of the blame on the man he wants to replace: "We need a president committed to running a competent government."
Bush, who has not serve in any military capacity, proposed that all 9 million veterans in VA care programs be free to choose doctors and other providers outside the VA system. Choice always yields "better outcomes," Bush argued.
Congress has already appropriated $10 billion over three years to allow flexibility for VA patients who cannot get an appointment within 30 days or who live 40 miles or more from a VA health facility.
The candidate called for a massive upgrade in software that would allow veterans to apply for care, access their medical records and manage appointments using a secure online system. And he wants to change federal personnel rules to make it easier to fire low-level VA employees deemed responsible for delaying or preventing patient care. Bush said he is not "anti-government-worker" and wants only to "empower" good workers, while firing those who do not perform.
Bush has not put a price tag on his ideas, though he pitched himself as a both a "deficit hawk and a defense hawk." He said a VA fix must be part of a wider budget overhaul that would include major changes to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, along with putting "everything on the table" at the Defense Department — the four single largest federal outlays.
At the Pentagon, Bush said that would mean reducing the number of administrative personnel, curtailing the use of expensive contractors and tightening spending controls for new weapons systems, which Bush described as "extraordinarily expensive."
Bush said he'd direct the savings to boosting the active-duty troop count, both by delaying discharges of current forces and recruiting new personnel. He described higher troop levels as both a national security imperative and a way to prevent more discharged service members from flooding the veterans care system.
Associated Press reporters Bruce Smith in Charleston, South Carolina, and Sergio Bustos in Miami contributed.
Follow Barrow on Twitter at https://www.twitter.com/BillBarrowAP .