NEWS: Sanders and VA Secretary Hear Directly from Vermont Veterans During Two-Day Visit to See Health Care System Firsthand

BURLINGTON, Vt., April 19 – Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), former chair and current member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, last week hosted Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Cabinet Secretary Denis McDonough on a two-day visit to see firsthand Vermont’s health care system for veterans and hear directly from the veterans it serves.

Throughout the trip, Sanders and McDonough met with Vermont VA leadership, veterans, clinical and non-clinical staff, union representatives, and medical students, including six veterans and military students. On Wednesday, April 13, Sanders and McDonough visited the White River Junction VA Medical Center and regional benefits office. On Thursday, April 14, Sanders and McDonough met with staff of the Burlington Community Based Outpatient Clinic and toured the facility to better understand the current space and opportunities for expansion. Sanders hosted a roundtable of Vermont veterans to hear directly from them about their experience with the VA. Sanders and McDonough also met with students at the University of Vermont’s Larner College of Medicine to discuss health care for veterans and medical careers within the VA health care system. Sanders and McDonough were available to media on both days following the visits to the VA Medical Center and Community Based Outpatient Clinic.

On Thursday at the end of the visit, in the rain under a tent outside the Burlington Outpatient Lakeside Clinic, Sanders said: “I want to thank Secretary McDonough for spending not just one day here in Vermont, but two days. During this visit, he and I spoke with dozens and dozens of Vermont veterans. Secretary McDonough was able to hear directly from VA practitioners and administrators, medical students, and Vermont veterans themselves. And I think he’s learned a lot about the strengths of Vermont’s VA system and some of the problems that we have yet to overcome. In a very divided Washington D.C., it is my hope and belief that every member of the United States Congress understand that we cannot turn our backs on the men and women who put their lives on the line to defend this country. And that, for all veterans, good quality health care is a right that they have earned and that we have got to deliver.”

Discussions throughout the trip ranged across issues faced by veterans in Vermont and around the country, from expanding eligibility to allow more veterans to enroll in the VA health care system, to addressing the housing crisis hitting Vermont communities and VA staff as well. As many veterans indicated throughout the visit, VA health care is excellent, but figuring out how to enroll can be complex and convoluted, making it so some veterans give up before they have a chance to experience the great health care provided by the VA. Another major point that came up throughout the trip from Vermont veterans and other participants, was the urgent need for the VA to include dental care coverage in its health care offerings.

At the end of the visit, McDonough said: “It was a privilege traveling with Senator Sanders and speaking with Veterans of the great state of Vermont. While VA has done some great work on their behalf, it’s clear we still have work to do. Our passionate and dedicated VA workforce in Vermont has been remarkable – especially under the crucible of the pandemic these past two years. This is indicative of the commitment VA has in working with Senators Sanders and Leahy, and Representative Welch to help deliver the absolute-best care and services to Veterans.”

Sanders also stated on Thursday: “Right now there are some immediate issues that my office is working on, which we’ve been talking to the Secretary about and we hope to implement them in the months and years to come. One is this: It is my belief, and we have legislation to this effect, that dental care is health care, and the VA should incorporate dental care as part of VA health care. Number two, and in a more parochial sense, we have a wonderful community-based outpatient clinic right here. It needs to expand because it is outgrowing its ability to serve veterans. A third point that I want to make is, I hope every veteran in Vermont understands that the quality of VA health care is high quality care. That if you’re eligible for VA health care, you’re entitled to excellent quality hearing aids at very small cost and the lowest cost prescription drugs available in America. So, I look forward to working with the Secretary to do everything that we can to enroll every eligible Vermont veteran into VA health care.”

Recently in the Senate, Sanders held a bipartisan roundtable discussion on strengthening VA dental care with the current chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Jon Tester (D-Mont.), committee ranking member Jerry Moran (R-Kans.), stakeholders, and VA officials. In 2021, Sanders introduced two pieces of legislation – the Veterans Dental Care Eligibility Expansion and Enhancement Act and the Veterans State Eligibility Standardization Act – that would ensure universal dental care coverage for all veterans through the VA and eliminate long-standing barriers to health care for veterans across the country. This legislative push would also help address the shortage of dentists in the U.S. by ensuring the VA maintains dental clinics in all states and incentivizing dental school enrollment and service to the nation’s veterans.