By: Craig Roberts

The chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs came to the defense of the Department of Veterans Affairs as Legion National Commander Daniel M. Dellinger prepared for testimony before Congress on Tuesday. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I–Vt., twice argued the VA’s case that morning, once at a breakfast reception for Legionnaires attending Dellinger’s appearance before a joint session of the House and Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committees, and again at the hearing itself.

At the pre-hearing reception on the top floor of the Hart Senate Office Building, Sanders began a 16-minute talk with a tribute to The American Legion’s role as his helpmate.

“For my committee to do a good job, which is to address the serious needs facing the millions of veterans in our country we can’t do it without you,” he said. “You are the people from day to day who understand what the issues are, what the problems are. I consider you as absolute allies in helping me make the VA the very best institution it can be. So, thank you for that.”

Sanders then addressed specific challenges facing VA as viewed by The American Legion. “At the top of your list is the issue of the claims backlog,” he said. He drew laughter next from a packed audience when he said that “it has something to do with the VA being the last major institution in the history of the world to go from paper to digital.”

“But,” he continued, “the bottom line is that when General (Eric) Shinseki became secretary of the VA, he did something that I have to respect. What he did is say, ‘Here it is, by the time 2015 comes around, we will process all disability claims within 125 days with 98 percent accuracy.’ Now, he’s not a good politician because politicians are never as clear as that.”

As the audience chuckled, Sanders continued. “And here, in a sense, is the good news. The VA is making progress in reducing the disability claims backlog. I meet very often with General Shinseki, (and) with (VA Under Secretary) Allison Hickey to see the progress that they are making. We have just passed language in a bill that came out of (my) committee that is going to keep a very close eye on them to make sure that they achieve that goal. Bottom line is there is no disagreement in this country. If a veteran submits a claim, that veteran is not going to wait years to get that claim processed.”

Sanders then began a defense of the often embattled Department of Veterans Affairs, saying, “We should be proud that all over this country veterans are getting high quality medical care with a very dedicated staff. One of the problems that you have…when you’re with the VA (is) when you have 152 hospitals and 900 CBOCs (Community Based Outpatient Clinics) and 200 vet centers, you know what? On every single day, there’s going to be a problem. And, there are problems at hospitals that are not VA as well. But, when they’re in the VA they somehow make the front pages of the paper. But, the point I want to make is not that the VA is perfect, but it’s a good system and I want to work with you to make it a better system.”

Sanders then pointed to several areas where, in his estimation, VA is doing “cutting edge work.” He led with mention of the VHA (Veterans Health Administration) Telehealth system which affords VA patients remote diagnoses and counseling by healthcare providers via teleconference links. This, Sanders said, greatly benefits veterans living in rural areas such as his home state of Vermont. Sanders said the VA is “leading the country in this leading edge” technology-based work.

In the discipline of pain management, Sanders lauded VA for “doing a good job in introducing what used to be called alternative but is now called integrated” medicine at its facilities. He used acupuncture as an example of the type of non-chemical treatments for pain being requested and employed increasingly. Sanders mentioned preventative medicine as another area in which VA, in his view, is “leading the way.”

Sanders wondered aloud if the VA health care he champions should be made available to more veterans. “There’s an issue I want to throw out to you,” he said. “We haven’t resolved it yet and we’re certainly going to look at The American Legion’s input on it.

“Right now to a significant degree, those eligible for VA health care are service-connected veterans or lower-income veterans. The question that I look forward to debating with you is to what degree we should expand eligibility requirements to make VA health care, which is cost effective and high quality, open to all veterans. There are two sides (to this). On the one hand, if you open it up (to all), it’s expensive. It costs money. On the other hand, it’s more cost effective than many other forms of health care so you probably end up saving the government money.”

Sanders wrapped up his remarks by noting that his Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs is “making good progress” on proposed legislation to expand the benefits of the Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act of 2010. Presently, the act provides aid and support to certain caregivers of eligible Post-9/11 veterans. Sanders said, discussion about expanding the support to caregivers of all severely disabled veterans is being considered.

His final comment was on the proposed government cost-saving “Chained CPI Consumer Price Index” method of periodically recalculating government payouts such as Social Security benefits and those issued to disabled veterans. The Chained CPI would over time, say critics, yield lower payments to beneficiaries than the current “straight” CPI method of calculations.

“It seems to me,” Sanders said, “that there are a lot of ways that we can do deficit reduction. But one of the ways we do not do it is on the back of disabled vets, so we’re going to forcefully oppose this idea.” He reiterated his remarks an hour later in his opening statements as he gaveled the joint session of the House and Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee at which Dellinger testified.