(Emmanuel Dunand/AFP, Getty)

“Our veterans sacrificed everything for our country …But Romney suggested ending guaranteed health care for wounded veterans.”

“Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan back a plan that cuts health services for veterans by 19%.”

— A mailer from the Democratic Party of Virginia

The Virginia Democratic party circulated this mailer during the waning days of the election, painting GOP candidate Mitt Romney as a sort of monster who proposed terminating the guaranteed health-care benefits for wounded veterans. Such a policy move would be tantamount to political suicide, so this type of claim should raise a red flag for readers.

Democrats have also accused Romney of wanting to increase defense spending by $2 trillion — a number we have found a bit dubious — so voters might be a little confused at this point. Which is it? Would he slash funding for veterans and the military community or throw heaps more money at them?

The defense budget is separate from Veterans Affairs spending, so these assertions are not as contradictory as they may sound. But these Democratic claims send mixed messages about how a Romney presidency would affect current and former service members.

Both parties resort to political gamesmanship when it comes to budget matters, but let’s take a closer look at the Virginia mailer to determine how much truth it contains.

The Facts

The claim about “ending guaranteed health care for wounded veterans” refers to comments Romney made during a November 2011 roundtable discussion with veterans in Mauldin, S.C. The Republican candidate was responding to a veteran who complained about the difficulties of navigating Veterans Affairs bureaucracies.

Here’s what Romney said:

“When you work in the private sector and you have a competitor, you know if I don’t treat this customer right, they’re going to leave me and go somewhere else, so I’d better treat them right. Whereas if you’re the government, they know there’s nowhere else you guys can go. You’re stuck.

Sometimes you wonder if there would be some way to introduce some private-sector competition, somebody else that could come in and say that each soldier gets X-thousand dollars attributed to them, and then they can choose whether they want to go in the government system or in a private system with the money that follows them, like what happens with schools in Florida, where people have a voucher that goes with them. Who knows?”

To summarize, Romney suggested private-sector competition might lead a more user friendly experience for veterans seeking care. This is hardly a proposal that tries to make life harder on former service members.

It’s worth noting that Romney’s hypothetical solution would give veterans a choice between government and private options, not eliminate guaranteed health care for wounded veterans. It also would not “threaten the promise of health care,” but instead expand veterans’ choices.

Some Democrats compare Romney’s fleeting roundtable idea with a plan by Romney’s running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), to overhaul Medicare. As a quick reminder, Ryan proposed the gradual implementation of a premium-support program with capped government contributions that could make future seniors pay more for health care. The fear is that the same could happen to veterans.

But these two plans are not the same. Ryan’s Medicare proposal specifically tries to reduce costs, which is why seniors could pay more under the plan. On the other hand, Romney floated an idea for solving bureaucratic inefficiency, not for saving money. He didn’t mention anything about capping government contributions toward veterans’ benefits.

Finally, Romney’s “Who knows?” utterance suggests the former governor was just throwing around ideas rather than declaring an official policy stance. His campaign actually denied after the event that he had laid out a new policy proposal, insisting in rather vague terms that the GOP candidate’s overarching goal is merely to provide veterans “with the world-class care they deserve.”

Romney’s campaign Web site is equally void of specifics, promising to “institute reforms to the [Veterans Affairs department] aimed at unclogging bureaucratic inefficiencies and mismanagement” and to “hold VA leaders accountable for poor performance.”

Veterans of Foreign Wars public affairs director Joe Davis said the veterans’ organization “is against contracting out the inherent health care responsibilities of the Department of Veterans Affairs.” Asked whether an optional voucher program would trigger VFW opposition on those same grounds, Davis said the group does not comment on hypotheticals.

It’s worth noting that the Veterans Affairs department already allows patients to use outside health-care providers in rural areas and when certain types of specialty care are needed. Davis said the VFW does not oppose outsourcing in such cases because “it takes care of veterans.”

As for the claim that Romney is “supporting cuts to veterans’ benefits by 19%,” this refers to the 2013 House GOP budget, also known as the “Ryan budget” because Ryan helped craft it as chair of the House Budget Committee. Romney supported that proposal, but has also said time and again that as president he plans to come up with a fiscal plan all his own.

For the record, Romney has made no specific proposals to reduce spending on the VA.

Let’s pretend for the sake of argument that the GOP challenger wants to sign an exact replica of the 2013 House budget bill. For one thing, that proposal is only a blueprint that sets spending targets for broad categories.

The White House calculated that the House GOP budget plan would have resulted in a cut of 5 percent in nondefense spending in 2013--and 19 percent by 2014. The Republican bill did not propose cuts to specific programs, but instead offered a few “illustrative policy options” that could help achieve its goals. Those options are non-binding.

Overall, the GOP plan calls for Veterans Affairs spending in line with the 2013 White House budget. Both proposals would increase funding for the department by about 5 percent, dedicating roughly $1.4 trillion toward it over the next 10 years.

The Virginia mailer relies on a typical line of attack for Democrats, assuming that Republicans would cut evenly across all categories of non-defense discretionary spending in order to meet their budget goals.

But Romney has said he wouldn’t reduce spending evenly across the board.

In an April 4 speech to newspaper editors, he said: “Of course you wouldn’t cut programs on a proportional basis. There would be some programs you would eliminate outright — Obamacare being first on the list.”

It’s worth noting that Romney as governor of Massachusetts raised fees for long-term care at the Chelsea Soldiers’ Home for veterans and vetoed a spending increase for veterans’ cemeteries, apparently because he thought the amount exceeded projected needs. His veto statement said, “I am reducing this item to the amount projected to be necessary.”

Romney also tried to reduce spending on veterans’ outreach centers in Massachusetts, but the legislature rejected that proposal. His communications director and current campaign aide Eric Fehrnstrom said at the time that the cuts wouldn’t have affected core veterans’ services. “There were line-item reductions in the veterans’ budget, as there were in all areas of state government,” he said. “But these reductions did not directly impact veterans’ services.”

The Pinocchio Test

Romney’s roundtable musings about a possible solution to the frustrations of VA bureaucracy do not count as an official policy proposal. Besides, the idea that he laid out said nothing about cutting veterans’ benefits. It would instead expand the options for former service members: They could receive government care or take their federal benefit into the private market — no mention of a cap.

The Virginia mailer said Romney supports cutting veterans’ benefits by 19 percent, based on the House GOP budget bill that actually increases Veterans Affairs spending. The claim assumes that the spending reductions required by the Republican proposal would occur equally in all areas of domestic spending, whereas Romney has indicated he would not apply them that way. Furthermore, the GOP presidential candidate has said he will come up with a fiscal plan of his own.

Overall, the Virginia mailer made assumptions about the GOP budget and grossly mischaracterized Romney’s comments about the possible benefits of a private option for veterans’ services. The Republican candidate has not suggested “ending guaranteed health care for wounded veterans.” That claim earns Four Pinocchios.

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