This is one of numerous policy plans that Democratic candidates have released over the past few weeks ahead of their first debates, which are scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday in Miami.
O’Rourke became intimately aware of the challenges facing veterans when he ran for Congress in the El Paso area in 2012, personally knocking on more than 16,000 doors and hearing from veterans that they were waiting too long for medical care. The congressional district is home to Fort Bliss, a sprawling U.S. Army post that has expanded over the past decade, often at a quicker pace than services for veterans grew.
During a heated Democratic primary that year, O’Rourke made these veterans a centerpiece of his campaign as he challenged longtime incumbent Silvestre Reyes, a Vietnam War veteran. O’Rourke won the primary, then the general election and requested to be on the House Veterans' Affairs Committee. About a year after his arrival in Washington, it was revealed that wait times at the Phoenix VA were much longer than officials claimed, sparking a national scandal and a scramble by lawmakers to quickly improve and better fund VA health centers.
During his six years on the committee, O’Rourke was involved with legislation that provides mental health screenings to members of the military as they leave service and mental health services to veterans with other-than-honorable discharges, among other issues.
In El Paso, O’Rourke was determined to lower wait times and increase the number of staff members at the VA health center in El Paso. His staff tracked these numbers on large charts in their office, and O’Rourke would call up doctors and medical school students whom VA hoped to hire and pitch them on living in El Paso. He was known to escort local veterans needing care to the VA director’s office to get an appointment immediately scheduled, and he would regularly call to chat with local veterans who had attempted suicide. One of O’Rourke’s informal advisers was the mother of a veteran who committed suicide during his first year in office.
In 2015, O’Rourke proposed and helped to implement a pilot program that made it easier for veterans to receive medical care from local providers, including a university medical center. O’Rourke has said there’s a careful balance to strike between immediately getting veterans the help they need and preserving the mission of VA, which he thinks should prioritize treatment of war-related injuries. Through that pilot program and other efforts, average wait times have fallen in El Paso, as they have at many VA health centers on the country.
The plan that O’Rourke released Monday focuses on four areas: Ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and spending the money saved on veterans; further modernizing the VA health-care system and increasing funding for medical research; treating all veterans equally and increasing support for women and LGBT veterans; and helping veterans succeed when they leave the military. O’Rourke plans to discuss these ideas during a roundtable session with veterans in Tampa on Monday.
“We must be willing to pay any price, and bear any burden, to provide the full care, support and resources to every single veteran who served every single one of us,” O’Rourke said in a statement.