Donald Trump's feud with the father of a slain Muslim soldier who called him out during the Democratic convention is drawing renewed attention to veterans issues, and revealing the wide split between Trump and Hillary Clinton on how best to help veterans who return from the battlefield.
President Obama opened the door to the issue again on Monday, during a speech before a disabled veterans group in Atlanta. He didn't mention Khizr Khan, who lost his son in 2004 in Iraq and has lambasted Trump for the last several days, but Obama clearly referred to Trump's feud with Khan by saying the families who have lost loved ones are beyond reproach.
"Gold star families have made a sacrifice that most of us cannot even begin to imagine," Obama said.
Both parties agree the Department of Veterans Affairs is a mess that needs to be improved, after it became clear in 2014 that veterans weren't getting timely access to healthcare. But the parties are split on just how to get there.
A 300-page report released in June by the Commission on Care, a bipartisan 15-member panel created by Congress to respond to the crisis in 2014, recommended that the VA supplement its government-run facilities by creating a system of public and private health networks to treat veterans. Under the model, veterans would be able to choose between going to a VA facility or a private provider.
The plan also calls for keeping many existing VA facilities but shuttering those that are under-utilized.
Trump embraced the proposal in a 10-point plan released in early July and called for additional steps, including improving accountability for VA employees who aren't performing, who are cracking down on whistleblowers, or are responsible for schemes to cover-up problems at the VA.
But Clinton and Obama have taking exception to the recommendations, arguing that the overhaul would "privatize the VA."
Clinton has yet to be much more specific. On Clinton's campaign website, she promises to "build a 21st Century Department of Veteran Affairs to deliver world-class care," but provides few details on what reforms she would institute other than "creating a culture of accountability, service and excellence at the VA" and "providing budgetary certainty."
But it's clear Democrats oppose private healthcare options, and Obama has made his opposition to privatizing any part of the VA clear. On Monday, he said privatizing the VA would amount to a breach of the "sacred covenant" the American people have with veterans, referring to the "folks" who keep pushing this "radical proposal" to privatize care.
"We pledged to take care of you and your families when you come home," he said. "That's a sacred covenant. It's a solemn promise and it is binding. And upholding it is a moral imperative."
The president also blamed Republicans for blocking his budget proposals to increase veteran funding.
Obama said he has worked hard to fix the VA and the egregiously long waits for appointments and care. Eric Shinseki, who he named to run the department when he first took office in 2009, resigned amid the VA scandal and Obama then tapped Robert McDonald, the former CEO of Procter and Gamble, to replace him in order to bring his experience in the private sector to bear on the VA bureaucracy.
While he has made some progress, Obama admitted that he and McDonald are still trying to fix the problems that have plagued the system.
He outlined several areas where he is still trying to make more dramatic improvements, including on access to healthcare, providing more resources, finding jobs for veterans and ending homelessness. In 2010, Obama made ending veteran homelessness by 2015 a goal, but Monday touted his efforts to reduce homelessness by 47 percent.
White House deputy press secretary Eric Schultz conceded that Obama hadn't met his original goal, arguing that he "knew it was ambitious" at the time he made it. But he vowed not to stop working until every veteran has a home.
Obama's Monday speech was well-received, but some veterans groups took issue with any type of victory lap or lecture from Obama on how best to reform the VA.
"There has been some progress but this is not time for the president to celebrate," Paul Rieckhoff, CEO and founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said in a statement. "The VA scandal was predictable, preventable and many of the core issues still remain two years later."
He went on to accuse Obama and his remarks Monday of being "tone deaf" and said the president needs to be "candid in acknowledging the failures during his presidency and turning the corner now."
Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., the chairman of the House Veteran Affairs Committee, said he still finds the administration VA wait time data "misleading" and said whistleblower retaliation is "still a major problem," along with poor employee work, even though the VA budget has quadrupled since 2001.
"The fact is, VA will never be fixed until we have a president who is dedicated to solving the department's No. 1 problem — its widespread and pervasive lack of accountability," he said. "Until then, VA's issues will continue while veterans pay the price."