Colorado Springs U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn stumped on veterans issues Tuesday, hitting what could be a major theme behind 2016 election campaigns.
Lamborn spoke at an event for the nonprofit Concerned Veterans for America, which has pumped a string of GOP candidates in recent months, including presidential hopeful Marco Rubio, for their efforts to reform the Department of Veterans Affairs. The congressman is so far unopposed in seeking his sixth term.
He thumped VA leaders over ongoing issues at the agency's Colorado Springs clinic.
"Sooner or later we need to have major reform at the national level," Lamborn told the gathering of about 100 people at Stargazers Theater east of downtown. "I think we need to take a fresh start in January and hopefully it will be with a president who is receptive to reform."
Lamborn is warming to Concerned Veterans for America's plan to give veterans a health insurance card that will let them routinely seek private care. Now the VA is offering the insurance like the Veterans Choice Program option to some veterans who face long drives or waits for care. That program allows eligible veterans to receive health care in their communities. Critics say VA downplayed that program to avoid losing patients.
"I think there's a culture change that needs to take place at the VA and the minimum step is to embrace the private sector," Lamborn said.
Veteran's issues are a campaign staple in El Paso County, home to 83,000 veterans and more than 40,000 active-duty troops.
But in recent weeks, VA woes have risen to dominate local politics.
The Fillmore Street clinic attracted congressional scrutiny after a February report from the VA's internal watchdog revealed long wait times at the facility and showed that workers there falsified appointment dates. Workers recorded same-day appointments for 28 veterans when they actually waited more than 10 weeks, the VA report said.
VA said it has addressed the scheduling problems in Colorado Springs and is working to cut wait times that have seen about a third of veterans at the clinic waiting more than a month for appointments.
Lamborn said that's not enough.
"My office is still getting a lot of complaints and we still have a lot of veterans not getting care within the 30 days for needed care," Lamborn said.
The VA's woes have attracted attention from candidates for the U.S. Senate on down.
El Paso County commissioner Peggy Littleton, who is in the GOP's crowded primary to face Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, held a town hall on the VA's problems last week, but only after drawing fire from fellow conservatives on the commission.
Littleton tried and failed to get a meeting on VA issues before the commission, but was shot down by Commissioner Amy Lathen, who said that would be a political foul.
"I greatly appreciate you addressing these issues, as they must be resolved. However, this is not related to your role as commissioner, neither is it a budgetary or policy matter over which the board has authority or which has been vetted by the Board of County Commissioners," Lathen wrote in an email to Littleton obtained by the Gazette.
Littleton wrote a heated reply to Lathen, "It is unfortunate you choose to politicize an effort to address and explore solutions to a dilemma affecting thousands of veterans in our community. Your assumption about my motive is wrong, and places internal politics ahead of concern for constituents who have given selflessly to defend us."
Whether Littleton's move was politics or policy, it met a key goal of Concerned Veterans for America state director Frank Crocker, who said he wants veterans issues "front and center" this election season.
Another leader from the group, Darin Selnick, praised Lamborn's work to reform VA.
"He's fighting the good fight and he needs your support," Selnick said.
Veterans at Lamborn's event say they like the heightened profile of VA issues this year.
"We know there's a problem but what are we doing to fix the problem?" asked veteran Mike Goldsboro. "We got folks dying. What are we going to do now."
Contact Tom Roeder: 636-0240