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Sanders Says Outlook For VA Health Care Reform is Good

Cliff Owen
Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington, during a committee hearing to examine the state of Veterans Affairs health care. (File photo May 15, 2014)

Senator Bernie Sanders says he’s optimistic that a comprehensive VA health care reform package will win final approval in Congress in the near future.

Sanders says the proposal is needed to ensure that all veterans receive critical medical services in a timely manner.

As the chairman of the Senate’s Veterans Affairs committee, Sanders has played a key role in developing a plan to deal with a crisis facing the VA health care system.

Several months ago, it was revealed that some VA medical personnel falsified records to hide how long veterans had waited for essential  services.

The House and Senate have passed their own bills that make important changes to the VA health care system and the issue is now being considered by a conference committee.

"I think the American people believe that veterans deserve to get quality health care in a timely manner," Senator Bernie Sanders

Sanders is a member of the committee and he’s optimistic that the panel will settle their differences when lawmakers return to Congress after the Fourth of July recess.

“I think the American people believe that veterans deserve to get quality health care in a timely manner and I think members of Congress do,” said Sanders. “I think we’ve got to work out the differences between the House and the Senate version, but I think we’re going to get there.”

Sanders says the bill includes short and long term solutions to the VA health care crisis. In the short term, it allows veterans to seek care from private providers if their local facility has long waiting lines for care.

“Right now many VA facilities around the country have long waiting periods,” said Sanders. “And the VA is going to have to go outside of the VA, contract out to private doctors or clinics or whatever, to provide that care in a timely manner.”

Sanders says the bill also authorizes a major expansion of the VA system to help deal with a growing number of veterans who need care.

“Many of the veterans are coming in with very complex issues like PTSD or traumatic brain injury,” said Sanders. “In terms of the older veterans, from World War Two, Korea, Vietnam, you’re looking at aging populations and people who get old also have complicated issues.”

The legislation has a price tag of roughly $2 billion. The big difference between the House and the Senate is how to pay for it.

The Senate refers to the bill as “an emergency appropriation” that should be considered outside of the regular budget.

But the House version calls for additional budget cuts to offset the cost of the plan. Sanders thinks the Senate approach will prevail in the end.

"We’re not going to get into a squabble about whether you cut back on education or food stamps in order to fund the needs of veterans," said Sanders. “That is the debate that shut down the government. That is not a way that we treat our veterans."

The legislation also allows all veterans who live more than 40 miles from a VA medical facility to seek care from private providers. This provision of the bill would be reviewed after a two year period.

Bob Kinzel has been covering the Vermont Statehouse since 1981 — longer than any continuously serving member of the Legislature. With his wealth of institutional knowledge, he answers your questions on our series, "Ask Bob."
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