Bernie Sanders does not believe that government always gets things right.
But the independent senator from Vermont does believe that where government has the capacity to act on behalf of those in need, it should do so.
In a capital where an awful lot of folks still buy into Ronald Reagan’s “government is the problem” calculus, Sanders knows that government can be the solution. Indeed, he recognizes that for those most neglected by an economy that almost always takes care of CEOs and celebrities but often fails clerks and construction workers, government is able to provide answers that the private sector cannot or will not produce.
“In the US Senate today, my right-wing colleagues talk a lot about “freedom” and limiting the size of government,” says Sanders. “Here’s what they really mean: They want ordinary Americans to have the freedom not to have health care in a country where 45,000 of our people who die each year because they don’t get to a doctor when they should. They want young people in our country to have the freedom not to go to college, and join the 400,000 young Americans unable to afford a higher education and the millions struggling with huge college debts. They want children and seniors in our country to have the freedom not to have enough food to eat, and join the many millions who are already hungry. And on and on it goes!”
Sanders cannot always get the Senate to consider the alternative. But as the chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, he has the authority and the bully pulpit to focus the nation’s attention not just on the neglect of military veterans—an issue that has long been his focus—but on the solutions government can provide for them.
Even before the details of how veterans are forced to endure excessively long wait times to access VA medical care were revealed, Sanders had written and advanced major legislation to address the underfunding of VA services and a host of other programs for veterans.
Then came the revelations of the extent of the dysfunction at VA hospitals—most recently in the form of a Veterans Affairs Department audit describing how more than 57,000 veterans have been forced to wait at least three months for their first appointments. And that another 64,000 veterans who asked for appointments over the past ten years never got the attention they requested—and deserved.
Sanders saw an opening to talk about what could, and should, be done. He started looking for allies. He found one in Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican and Vietnam War POW.
Together, Sanders and McCain crafted a response to the crisis. Yes, there were compromises. But the outlines of what Sanders had previously proposed were very much in evidence in the proposal to spend $35 billion over three years to dramatically improve VA staffing and to provide resources for vets seeking care from doctors close to home.
Sander told the Senate, “The cost of war does not end when the last shots are fired and the last missiles are launched. The cost of war continues until the last veteran receives the care and the benefits that he or she is entitled to and has earned on the battlefield.”
This time, the Senate agreed.
The often bitterly divided chamber voted 93-3 in favor of the Sanders-McCain plan.
When conservative Republicans objected to the price tag, McCain told them, “Make no mistake: this is an emergency.”
The most austerity-obsessed Republicans—Senators Bob Corker of Tennessee, Jeff Sessions of Alabama and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin—still voted “no.”
But most of Senate Republicans, including some of the chamber’s most conservative members, voted “yes,”
In so doing, they recognized the need for an ambitious expansion of government service, and of government aid to those who are most in need.
The Sanders-crafted measure the Senate backed seeks to
* Authorize leases for twenty-six new medical facilities in seventeen states and Puerto Rico.
* Designate funds for hiring more VA doctors and nurses to provide quality care in a timely manner.
* Expand existing VA authority to refer veterans for private care. Veterans experiencing long delays at the VA could seek care instead at community health centers, Indian health centers, Department of Defense medical facilities or private doctors. The two-year program also would offer those same options to veterans who live more than forty miles from a VA hospital or clinic.
The measure also expands accountability, giving the VA the authority to remove or demote administrators who have failed to meet the needs of vets, while creating incentives for reducing wait times at VA facilities. It also recognizes that healthcare is not the only need vets have; so the measure includes language to assure that “all recently-separated veterans taking advantage of the Post 9/11 GI Bill get in-state tuition at public colleges and universities.”
And, notes Sanders’s office, “for the first time, those same education benefits would be extended to surviving spouses of veterans who died in the line of duty.”
This is a big response to a big problem.
It still faces hurdles. The austerity hawks who are so good at thinking up reasons to go to war but so bad at paying for them—and so very bad at meeting commitments to those who serve—will keep raising objections. House Republicans are making predictable demands for “offsets” equaling the cost of the VA initiative, peddling the fantasy that other programs must be cut in order to find the money to aid veterans. The Philadelphia Inquireris hails the Senate measure as “an unusually swift and welcome response” that has “broad support and the potential to alleviate some of the department’s serious shortcomings.”
The prospect that a major problem will be met with a major response is real—as is the recognition that Senator Sanders has been right all along: sometimes government has to be part of the solution.