Op-Ed: Fighting for Vermont’s veterans

As a longtime member and former chair of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, I am honored to be able to work on behalf of Vermont’s 45,000 veterans and their families, who have done so much in service to our country.

That is why I am organizing a Veterans Town Hall and Resource Fair this Saturday, May 19, at Norwich University from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. We’ll hear updates from Washington and learn about veterans’ resources and projects here in Vermont. Our special guest will be Matthew Shuman, national legislative director for The American Legion. I hope you can join us. To RSVP, please call 1-800-339-9834 or visit www.sanders.senate.gov/veteransfair.

I have long believed the cost of war must include the cost of caring for the warrior. That is why one of my very highest priorities in Congress is ensuring our nation’s veterans have access to the quality health care and benefits they have earned and were promised.

I am proud that in recent years, we have made some very good progress expanding veterans’ health care in Vermont. We now have an extensive Women’s Health Program at the White River Junction VA Medical Center, tailored to the unique needs of female veterans. We have five Community Based Outpatient Clinics throughout the state that offer quality primary care and advanced telemedicine. And we have two Vet Centers that provide specialized mental health services for combat veterans.

Of course, there is much more to do. The good news is that Congress recently appropriated $2 billion for VA hospital maintenance and improvement projects, which should also free up funds to help fill the more than 30,000 VA staff vacancies. Both of these are critically important to make sure veterans in Vermont and across the country can access the care they need, when and where they need it.

The budget also included funding for another top priority of mine, the Vermont National Guard’s Veterans Outreach Program, which helps service members, veterans, and their families cope with the challenges associated with deployments and reintegration.

As we look ahead to next year’s budget, my priorities are expanding Burlington’s very successful Lakeside Clinic to offer more services, and building a dental clinic at the White River Junction Medical Center. Moreover, I believe VA benefits should be expanded to cover comprehensive dental care.

We must also expand and fund the very popular Caregivers Support Program. The program, which provides support for family members who care for disabled veterans, is currently limited to post-9/11 era veterans. It is long past time that all veterans and their families benefit from this commonsense and cost-effective program. And we must similarly expand other programs that help disabled and aging veterans, including adult day and respite care.

Meanwhile, this is a time of significant uncertainty for veterans, especially in terms of efforts to privatize the VA. In March, President Trump fired VA Secretary David Shulkin, because Shulkin was “an obstacle to privatization who had to be removed.” The president’s first choice to replace Dr. Shulkin withdrew from consideration and, so far, Trump has not nominated anyone else for this critically important post.

Please know that I will vigorously oppose any nominee for secretary who isn’t well qualified to run an organization as complex as the VA, or who supports efforts to privatize the agency. Veterans in Vermont and throughout the country deserve nothing less.

The Department of Veterans Affairs has an extraordinary mission of providing health care, benefits, and burial services to our nation’s 20 million veterans. It is no secret that the VA – like any large organization – has its share of struggles. But what strikes me is that when I talk with Vermont veterans, the feedback I hear is overwhelmingly positive, especially in regards to the health care they receive.

The VA understands the unique needs of veterans. It provides comprehensive, patient-centered care under one roof, eliminating the divide between preventive care and treating illness. It treats the whole patient, delivering both physical and mental health services. And it offers both traditional and complementary medicine.

Importantly, as a Rand Corporation study just reported, the VA does all of this while consistently producing medical outcomes that are as good as or better than the private sector, and at an equal or lower cost.

A few years ago, I worked closely with Senator John McCain to improve VA facilities, expand programs, and allow the VA to hire more doctors and nurses. While we are making good progress, we must continue this work to strengthen and expand the VA – not privatize or dismantle it – so the VA will be there for generations of veterans to come.

I hope you join us to discuss these and other issues at our Veterans Town Hall Meeting on May 19.

  Written by Sen. Bernie Sanders.

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