By: Cliff Kincaid
Accuracy in Media
Will CNN use Tuesday’s Democratic Party presidential debate to challenge Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) on his atrocious handling of the Veterans Affairs (VA) scandal?
Hillary Clinton has big problems that include blood on her hands over Benghazi, a Russia “reset” that has resulted in Russian aggression in Europe and the Middle East, and the mishandling of national security information through a private server.
By contrast, Sanders has been portrayed as a Washington outsider, even though his political career spans 25 years as a member of Congress, first as a U.S. representative and now as a senator. He is a socialist but a “democratic” socialist, whatever that may mean.
Sanders portrays himself as a friend of veterans who tends to their needs but opposes the wars that leave them needing medical help and treatment.
The problem for Sanders is that his pitiful performance as chairman of the Senate Veterans Committee has come under serious scrutiny by CNN and other media for defending the VA bureaucrats and putting their interests above the veterans they are supposed to serve.
An observer might conclude that Sanders’ preference for big government programs and government-run health care had blinded him to flaws in the VA system.
The Washington Free Beacon noted that his performance got so bizarre at one point that, as the scandals were coming to light, the socialist Sanders tried to divert attention away from the flaws in the bureaucratic system and proceeded to accuse the Koch brothers of launching “a concerted effort to undermine the VA” and discredit government programs.
Sanders said the Koch brothers were picking on these “large, governmental institutions” because they “want to radically change the nature of society, and either make major cuts in all of these institutions, or maybe do away with them entirely.”
John McClaughry of Vermont’s Ethan Allen Institute commented, “Bernie Sanders has become totally demented about the Satanic Koch brothers, to the point that he thinks they are responsible for anything that goes wrong anywhere. This man needs professional treatment.”
But Sanders has his supporters in the press. In the face of these crazy remarks, one of the senator’s most prominent media defenders wrote, “From the moment the long-gathering [VA] scandal broke into public view in April 2014, it took Congress less than four months to produce a new law—a split second by Capitol Hill standards.” Columnist Jill Lawrence noted that Sanders, who had become chairman of the Senate Veterans Committee in 2013, had worked with Republicans to craft a bill designed to fix the serious problems.
“It speaks volumes in particular about Sanders, who pushes for a single-payer government health system in every speech, that the law introduced a private-care option for veterans,” she wrote.
It actually speaks volumes about the failures of socialized medicine. At that point, after playing down the serious nature of the scandal, Sanders was forced to recognize that the government-run VA health care system could only be saved by giving patients a private health care option. He came to this “realization” because House Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller (R-FL) had pressed for letting veterans seek health care outside the VA system.
A poll from Concerned Veterans for America that was reported by Military Times showed that about 88 percent of respondents wanted to increase health care choices for VA patients, including access to private care physicians.
The Sanders campaign website ignores the senator’s failure in this important area, proclaiming, “As the former Chairman and a current member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, one of Sen. Sanders’ highest priorities in Congress has been ensuring that our veterans receive the care and benefits they have earned.” It goes on, “Amid reports of unacceptable wait times at many VA medical facilities last year, Sen. Sanders spearheaded a bipartisan effort to pass the most comprehensive veterans’ legislation in decades. The landmark Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act increases accountability within the VA and ensures that all veterans have access to timely health care.”
Notice the failure to mention that “timely health care” now includes access to private medical care. That was an initiative from Republicans.
Running for president as an avowed socialist, Sanders now promises “Medicare for All” rather than “VA Health Care for All” on a national basis. It’s a clever reformulation that ignores what Sanders did not do to get to the root of the VA health care scandal, and whether he has learned any lessons from those failures.
As noted by Bruce Parker of the Vermont Watchdog, an independent journalist group associated with the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity, Sanders had made a “series of puzzling public statements” when the scandal broke that appeared to defend the government hospital bureaucracy. Sanders went on C-SPAN and CNN and urged the media “to remain neutral over claims that 40 U.S. veterans died at the Phoenix VA while waiting to receive care.” Sanders said, “The allegation is not that the delay in care caused that; only that that is what is now being investigated.”
As pressure grew on Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign or be fired, Sanders defended him, saying, “The truth is that the V.A. is a huge institution. It does a whole lot of very important work. In many ways Shinseki has done a very good job.”
Sanders explained that Shinseki “has done a good job” but has been weak in terms of “communicating with the Congress or certainly with the American people and the media.”
Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, was quoted as saying that Sanders had been “ineffective” as head of the Senate panel. He said, “It seems to have to do with his worldview. He seems to think that any kind of demand for accountability or criticism of the VA is an attack to dismantle the entire system. Nobody is saying that. We’re saying if you want VA to be supported, then make VA work.”
During an appearance on MSNBC in May of 2014, Rieckhoff said that Sanders had “basically been an apologist for the VA over the past few weeks.”
CNN Host Chris Cuomo interviewed Sanders, telling him “…you sound like a lawyer defending the hospital, as opposed to a senator trying to make sure the right thing is done.”
To its credit, CNN, which is sponsoring Tuesday night’s Democratic presidential debate, has done some excellent reporting on the scandal. The CNN Investigations unit reported on September 3 that a VA inspector general report found that 307,000 veterans may have died awaiting health care.
“Access to health care is a human right,” says Sanders. But his work as chairman of the Senate Veterans Committee doesn’t back up the campaign rhetoric.