The two leading candidates for Maryland's open Senate seat offered contrasting visions Saturday for medical care for veterans — and broadly different views of how they would approach a seat held for three decades by Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski.
Speaking at the first general election forum in the race, Republican state Del. Kathy Szeliga repeatedly described Democratic Rep. Chris Van Hollen as a "career politician" and said he has not done enough to address problems the Department of Veteran Affairs has faced for decades.
Asked if she would support privatizing medical care for veterans, Szeliga said that if the government cannot deliver quality medical treatment, then "we would have to consider that as an option, yes."
"My opponent, Chris Van Hollen, has been in Congress for 14 years [and] over that time things have not gotten better for our veterans," said Szeliga, of Baltimore County. "He's making some promises about what he'd like to do for our veterans, but actions speak louder than words."
Van Hollen, a Montgomery County lawmaker, said he does not support privatizing medical care for veterans.
"Privatizing the VA would be very bad for our veterans," he said. "When it comes to making sure our veterans get what they need, we all need to be together."
Szeliga, Van Hollen and Green Party nominee Margaret Flowers spoke at the forum separately. A recent poll found Szeliga trailing Van Hollen by a wide margin.
Long waits for care at VA medical facilities have been a problem for decades. It resurfaced in 2014 after reports that dozens of veterans in Arizona died waiting to see a doctor. At the time, veterans in Maryland waited an average of 80 days to make an initial appointment with a primary care physician, one of the longest delays in the country.
The issue cropped up in this year's presidential election when Republican nominee Donald Trump was criticized by Democrats and some veterans groups for suggesting he would be open to privatizing veterans' medical care.
But the specifics of the issue have sometimes been lost in the controversy. VA systems are already relying on private doctors in some parts of the country. Szeliga seemed to say it was that kind of arrangement she could support, not a full privatization of a federal department.
The forum was organized by the Maryland chapter of the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association as well as AARP Maryland.
Szeliga has been pressing Van Hollen to agree to additional debates since the two emerged from their primary campaigns this spring. So far the two major party candidates have said they will appear for two broadcast debates, one to be aired by WAMU-FM on Oct. 7 and another on WJZ-TV on Oct. 26. It is not yet clear if Flowers will participate in those meetings.
Szeliga also criticized Van Hollen for opposing legislation approved Wednesday by the Republican-controlled House that would make it easier for the Department of Veterans Affairs to fire underperforming employees. Democrats have supported some provisions of the bill, but have raised questions about the constitutionality of the sections dealing with personnel decisions.
Two Democrats in Maryland's congressional delegation — Reps. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger of Baltimore County and John Delaney of Montgomery County — voted for the bill. A majority of the Democratic caucus opposed it.
Szeliga and Van Hollen also presented different positions on health care, the economy and Washington's role in regulating businesses. Van Hollen said he supports legislation to give federal workers a raise to make up for several years of pay freezes. Unlike some Republicans in the Senate, Szeliga condemned the idea of shutting down the government over policy disputes, as Congress did in late 2013.
Flowers, a physician and the only third-party candidate running for the seat, said she would push for a universal health care system, as well as measures to address climate change and poverty. Flowers said Marylanders have a rare chance with an open seat to break from the traditional two-party political system.
"We're at a time now when there's an opportunity with an open Senate seat to...have someone in that Senate seat who represents the people ... and is going to be a voice for the people rather than a voice for those at the top," she said.
Flowers said she would not support privatization of Veterans Affairs.