BENNINGTON — Meeting with local veterans at an outpatient clinic in Bennington, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders learned that Veterans Administration health care in Vermont is good enough to entice some to relocate here from other states.
“I learned that in general people feel very good about VA care in Vermont, and that there are literally people coming from other states to take advantage of Vermont VA health care,” Sanders said, after meeting with about a dozen veterans and VA officials.
The senator spoke later Friday to students and staff members before a packed auditorium at Mt. Anthony Union High School, urging the young people to learn about issues facing the nation so they can make a difference.
“There are problems, and we talked about some of the problems,” Sanders said at the VA Outpatient Clinic on North Street.
But he added that the director of the regional VA Medical Center in White River Junction, Alfred Montoya Jr., attended the morning session to hear those concerns.
“I think he is going to be open to hearing the needs of veterans and to improving those situations,” Sanders said. “By and large what I have been hearing the past couple of days is that people appreciate the way the system is working.”
Sanders also held a town meeting attended by about 1,500 people in Springfield on Thursday and other events on Friday afternoon in Rutland.
While Sanders has been highly critical of Trump administration plans to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, he said the Veterans Administration care system would get more funding under the president’s proposal.
“In general it is a disastrous budget in my mind,” Sanders said of the Trump spending plan, referring to proposed cuts he said would negatively affect the poor, the elderly and other Americans. “On the other hand, I think his proposal for the VA is good,” Sanders said, “and we are going to support that.”
Sanders said that under the budget plan, the VA would see a budget increase, as would military spending in general.
But the administration’s plans for health care for the general public “would throw 24 million people off health care, would significantly raise premiums for older Americans, and is just insane and has to be defeated,” Sanders said.
He said he’s hopeful that some Republicans in the GOP-controlled Congress appear ready to help block the Trump proposal as it now stands.
“We need to improve Obamacare,” he said. “It is not perfect; it needs to be improved, but not simply repealed and replaced with something worse.”
Sanders has been an advocate of moving toward a single-payer system with Medicare-style coverage for all.
Democrats, Sanders added, “have to make it clear that they stand with the working families of this country, and that they are prepared to take on the big moneyed interests, Wall Street, the drug companies and the big corporations that have incredible economic and political leverage.”
Sanders, a member of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, said during a roundtable discussion with local veterans that he wanted to hear from them about their experiences with the VA health care system. Concerns were raised about difficulties in some cases with getting radiology work done in the Bennington area, as opposed to driving over Route 9 to the White River Junction center, where the tests would be covered through the VA.
A woman veteran also said there are fewer options or opportunities to access OG/GYN services through the system.
Montoya said he welcomes that kind of input and promised to work toward solutions to care issues, saying at one point, “I hear you loud and clear.”
It is difficult to get information out to veterans about the wide range of services they are qualified to receive, including prescription benefits and extensive mental health services, Montoya.
The VA has expanded services in Vermont to more veterans in recent years, with 26,245 enrolled and some 300,000 outpatient visits recorded last year.
Sanders lauded the expansion of clinics, such as the one on North Street, which has brought VA services closer to where veterans live.
Overall, “Vermont is the best, hands down,” said one veteran, who said he has experience dealing with the VA in other states in the Northeast.
A major difference, he and other vets said, is that it is easier to apply for benefits claims than in other states like New York or Massachusetts.
“I relocated from Albany, New York,” one man said, citing the services at the Bennington facility and in White River Junction.
“A lot of my buddies got a bad first taste,” another said, “and they won’t go back. But my treatment has been phenomenal.”
High school assembly
Speaking later to the students at MAUHS, Sanders emphasized the sacrifices veterans make.
These are people “who put their lives on the line to defend our country,” he told the students. “And what they fought for was something very special and that is American democracy. And I think all of you know, if you read history, that democracy is a fairly radical idea and a fairly new idea in world history.”
Unlike in a kingdom or dictatorship, he said, “the people have got to make the decisions, and in our democracy we have struggled with democracy from day one.”
Only white men who owned property could vote in the early years of the nation, but slowly the role of others in the decision-making process has expanded, he said, citing one a recent change when the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18 during the Vietnam War, when it was pointed out that young soldiers could fight in war but couldn’t vote at home.
“That is what democracy is about,” Sanders said, “and one of the concerns that I have, is that a lot of people are giving up on our democracy.”
He cited a low voter turnout, saying, “and more importantly people don’t understand that they have the power to influence what goes on locally, at the state and at the national level.”
“You, and millions of people like you, have the ability to shape the future of this country,” Sanders said. “Don’t sit back and claim that somebody is doing terrible things to me. You have the power to make things happen, if you use your brains and you figure out how to do it. That is what democracy is about.”
He also urged the students to “start thinking about the issues that impact Bennington, Vermont, and the world,” and to ask hard questions and learn how to develop informed opinions after hearing varied points of view.
“Democracy is not that hard,” Sanders said.