McCain, a Navy pilot who was held captive in North Vietnam, said reports of shoddy patient care at Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, which emerged in February, are a disgrace.
"Our men and women who are serving in the military were living in deplorable conditions," he told a crowd of 100 people - including veterans - packed into a pancake house in the northwestern part of this early voting state. "Maybe if we had a few more people who know what it's like to serve in the military, as the brave Americans sitting in front of me had, maybe we would've gotten that legislation done."
A presidential commission led by former Sen. Bob Dole and former health secretary Donna Shalala urged change last summer that would boost benefits for family members helping the wounded, establish an easy-to-use Web site for medical records and overhaul the way disability pay is awarded.
Congress has still not passed the so-called Wounded Warrior bill to repair the system, McCain said. The war in Iraq will further strain the veterans' health care system, which must be expanded, the Arizona senator said.
"Thank God we have so many coming back," he said. "We've saved so many lives we wouldn't have been able to in other wars."
Veterans' hospitals should focus on treating post traumatic stress disorder, burns and other combat-related wounds, McCain said. Veterans should get a card to use at any health care facility so they won't have to wait for routine care at veterans' hospitals, he said.
On a lighter note, McCain was given a pack of cigarettes by a fellow veteran who served on a Naval ship with the senator.
"He had given me cigarettes years ago, and he wanted to give me a pack now," the former smoker said. "I'm happy to tell you I haven't had a cigarette in 28 years. The bad news is, I still want a cigarette, but I have not had one in 28 years, so I'm going to get rid of this pack immediately."
McCain then handed the smokes to a campaign staffer.
McCain also said he would not let any country's borders deter him from authorizing the death of Osama bin Laden. He said the mastermind of Sept. 11, 2001, is still a danger because he's able to get messages out and recruit terrorists.
"I may not publicize it. I may not say exactly what we're doing, but we'll get him," McCain said. "We cannot allow anyone to get away with the slaughter of innocent Americans."