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Rubio and Iowa Veterans

Posted: December 13, 2015 | By: Aaron Feldman Tagged: From the Campaign Trail

Marco Rubio is catching fire across the country. Despite his recent uptake in popularity, Iowa Republicans are merely baffled by how little Rubio has been in Iowa compared to his Republican counterparts. Rubio is a serious candidate, highly likely to win the nomination, so perhaps he is spending comparatively less time in Iowa because he is building a strong national campaign. Although this strategy is probably wise, the Iowa caucuses clearly matter, so it is essential that Rubio delivers in the little time he spends here.

michael altieri

Michael Altieri attends the Marco Rubio speech to veterans. Photo by Aaron Feldman.

And deliver he did. Partaking in a Veterans and Military Town Hall forum, he appeared well-informed and engaged on the issues, particularly that of veterans affairs. Although Rubio himself does not have any military experience, this was of no concern to armed forces veteran Michael Altieri, who made the almost four hour drive from Eden Prairie to see Rubio speak at 9:30 a.m.

Even though Rubio has no experience himself, explained Altieri, we all have a family member or friend who serves, and Rubio is empathetic and caring enough to relate to those who serve and their families. Indeed, Rubio’s older brother, Mario, served in the Army from 1968 to 1971.

Rubio struck a chord with the veterans in the audience when discussing his brother. Mario suffered an injury during his time in the armed forces that requires a periodontist, and he has been waiting on dental work for a service-related injury.

“He’s had to file a claim and wait for a hearing, which could take anywhere from 18 months to three years. Meanwhile, he’s stuck waiting for the procedures. Mario is going through the exact same bureaucratic nightmare every other veteran in his situation has to go through. And like so many of them, he will tell you how confusing it has been, how even the forms he has to fill out seem almost intentionally complicated.”

Using his brother as an example, Rubio attacked the inefficiency of the Department of Veterans Affairs. He cited the 2014 scandal — in which hundreds of veterans died waiting for care — as a perfect example of why change is needed. Rubio reiterated that most employees at the VA are hardworking, responsible people, but the irresponsible ones need to be held accountable for their actions. Irresponsible employees, such as former Secretary Eric Shineski, clerks who allegedly falsified records to hide the long wait times facing veterans, and leaders who have a pattern of giving bonuses to unworthy employees, including an $11,819 raise to a surgeon under suspension for leaving surgery early.

Saying that veterans should be the priority, not the VA, Rubio called for drastic reform, laying out his plan in three steps. First, he called for an increase in accountability, stating that negligent workers should be fired. He was especially critical of union bosses, who he says rig the system, making it difficult for corrupt VA bureaucrats to be fired. Second, he calls for increased transparency, as he claimed that there is no easy way to verify what is happening at the VA. For example, it is difficult to find information on how many employees have been fired since the scandal broke in 2014. As president, he would make this information public. Third, he said that he would increase the options of veterans to choose their providers. “Benefits will follow the veterans,” he said, not the other way around.

Critics of his third point accuse Rubio of trying to privatize the healthcare of veterans. Rubio stated that such accusations are just confused journalists trying to confuse people. Rubio compared his reforms to the GI bill, which encouraged people to attend military academies but stressed that veterans could choose to attend the college of their choice. Likewise, with his reforms, a veteran could choose the VA or a private hospital, which might be necessary if the wait time for a specific procedure is too long, or the nearest VA clinic is too far away.

Rubio asked the veterans in the audience if they had “Choice Cards” — cards that supposedly allow veterans who wait more than 30 days to receive care to seek help from a private provider — and several hands went up. When he asked who was actually able to effectively use them, all the hands in the audience went down.

Veteran health facilities in Iowa. Photo from va.gov

Veteran health facilities in Iowa. Photo from va.gov

By doing so, Rubio well illustrated that the current system is in need of fixing. Indeed, Iowa is home to about 240,000 veterans, 7,000 of whom had to be admitted to a hospital under a doctor’s order in 2009. Iowa has 20 veterans health administration facilities. If you are a veteran in southeastern portion of Iowa like Lee County, you would have to drive over an hour to get to the nearest Iowa VA health clinics in Coralville and Ottumwa, and after all that you would probably be subjected to a long waiting period like Mario Rubio faces. Clearly frustrated with the current state of affairs, it was not hard to understand why so many veterans in the audience were excited to hear about Rubio’s plans.

Since the veteran’s affairs scandal broke in 2014, the number of veterans waiting for care is up 50 percent, and VA leaders warn they are facing a $2.6 billion budget shortfall. Indeed, the current Department of Veterans Affairs is in need of fixing, and Rubio claims that the system cannot be overhauled until there is a new president. Rubio said he would not keep the status quo and claimed that he was the most knowledgeable candidate on issues facing veterans, and after hearing him speak, I could tell the audience was fond of many of his proposals. If he could convince an entire group of people in such a short period of time, he should have little trouble with Iowa’s 240,000 veterans, a number large enough to substantially increase one’s chances of winning the Iowa caucuses.

IMG_1206Feldman is a political science and data analytics double major from Clarendon Hills, Illinois. He loves Bruce Springsteen and poorly attempting his songs on guitar. Follow him on Twitter.