COLUMBIA, S.C. — If Jeb Bush becomes president, he would push to privatize more veterans' health care, trim the size of the Department of Veterans Affairs and make it easier to fire lower-level employees who improperly treat veterans.
The Republican presidential candidate unveiled a new veterans health-care plan on Monday at the start of a two-day visit to South Carolina, the place with the highest percentage of active-duty and retired military personnel among the first four early primary states.
The rollout comes after a week-long focus on national security and foreign affairs that included a closely watched speech outlining how he would confront the rise of the Islamic State terror group. Bush faced criticism that his ideas hew too closely to those of his brother, George W. Bush, who is still widely faulted for mismanaging the war in Iraq.
With this week's focus on veterans, Bush continues discussing specific policy proposals and attempting to shift the GOP's conversation away from a focus on businessman Donald Trump's surge in the polls and toward more serious policy issues. Bush has seen his poll numbers slip nationally and in Iowa, while Trump's lead has grown in New Hampshire, and Ohio Republican Gov. John Kasich has climbed into third place right behind Bush.
Kasich is also in South Carolina on Monday, officially filing paperwork to run in the state's primary next year.
Bush began his South Carolina trip on Monday by meeting with a group of veterans supporting his campaign. The group includes Anthony Principi, who served as secretary of veterans affairs for George W. Bush and is a Navy veteran. He planned to hold a veterans-themed town-hall meeting at a VFW Hall in Columbia later Monday.
Bush said that revamping the VA and veterans health care overall would be "a top priority" if he's elected president. His ideas mirror those advanced last year by many Republican lawmakers, who responded with outrage to revelations of widespread mistakes and delayed care for veterans seeking medical treatment or referrals.
A VA reform bill that passed with bipartisan support last year allows veterans to seek private medical care if they cannot obtain an appointment with a VA doctor within 30 days or if they live more than 40 miles from the nearest VA facility. Bush proposes broadening those limitations to expand access to private care.
"If a veteran wants to see a neighborhood physician, he or she has earned that choice," he wrote in a document outlining his ideas. "The VA must remain the guarantor of that choice and that care."
Bush argued that the VA "has not sufficiently encouraged veterans to participate" in the private-care program. He proposes to pay for expanded access to private care by trimming the department's administrative staff through attrition and by expanding the department's use of technology. Among other things, that technology would make it easier for veterans to book appointments and fill prescriptions online. Such programs already exist but are "poorly designed," Bush said.
Two other proposals stick out in Bush's plan: First, he proposes allowing veterans to use the GI Bill to obtain a small-business loan. Eligible veterans would be able to borrow against their earned benefits to start a company instead of using it for education.
Secondly, Bush calls for the VA to prepare for an influx of female veterans by boosting its funding for obstetrics, gynecology, specialists in ovarian and breast cancer and more research to understand how post-traumatic stress disorder affects women.
News of Bush's comprehensive veterans plan was first reported by the Military Times.
Bush also announced the endorsement Monday of 12 Medal of Honor recipients — 15 percent of all of those awarded the nation's highest award for valor.
The group includes Kyle Carpenter, who received the honor last year in recognition of his decision to deliberately lunge at a hand grenade after an insurgent tossed it at him and another Marine in Marjah, Afghanistan, in 2010. Carpenter now lives in South Carolina and is pursuing a degree at the University of South Carolina.
News of the endorsements was first reported by Fox News.
The list of honorees backing Bush includes one other South Carolina resident — James Livingston, a retired Marine major general who received the honor in 1968 for service in Vietnam.
The list also includes:
Hal Fritz, Army, who served in Vietnam and lives in Illinois. Jay Vargas, Marine Corps, who served in Vietnam and lives in California. Al Rascon, Army, who served in Vietnam and lives in Maryland. Leo Thorsness, Air Force, who served in Vietnam, was a former prisoner of war and lives in Alabama. Bruce P. Crandall, Army, who served in Vietnam and lives in Washington state. Robert Modrcejewski, Marine Corps, who served in Vietnam and lives in California. James Taylor, Army, who served in Vietnam and lives in California. Sammy Davis, Army, who served in Vietnam and lives in Indiana. Leroy Petry, Army, who served in Afghanistan and lives in New Mexico. Doc Ballard, Army and Navy, who served in Vietnam and lives in Missouri.