Sanders pushes for better health care for Vermont veterans during VA secretary’s visit

By Auditi Guha, The VT Digger

Expanding community outreach clinics, adding services to the Northeast Kingdom and covering dental care for veterans are among the items U.S Senator Bernie Sanders, I-V.t, said he is pushing during U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Dennis McDonough’s two-day visit to Vermont.  

“I think he’s learned a lot about the strengths of Vermont’s VA system and some of the problems that we yet have to overcome,” Sanders said to a small press pool in a tent outside the Burlington Lakeside VA Clinic, removing his mask to talk over the rainstorm on Thursday.

“In a very divided Washington, D.C., my hope and belief is that every member of the United States Congress understands that we cannot turn our backs on the men and women who put their lives on the line to defend this country; that for all veterans, good quality health care is a right that they have earned and that we have got to deliver,” said Sanders, a longtime champion of veterans and former chair of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.

Sanders said he wants the community-based clinic in Burlington to expand and he wants all veterans in Vermont to know that they have access to high-quality care, including hearing aids and low-cost prescriptions. 

Sanders and McDonough also refuted rumors of the Newport community-based outpatient clinic closing. Instead, Sanders said they plan to build a larger facility in St. Johnsbury to expand access to veterans in the Northeast Kingdom. They did not provide further details.

“Let me just say that the idea behind community-based outpatient clinics is just to get more care closer to veterans so that veterans can get care in their communities from people they know and from people who are trained and culturally competent,” McDonough said.

Flanked by Dr. Brett Rush from the White River Junction VA Medical Center — where a press conference was held on Wednesday — and Ryan Lilly, regional director of the New England VA health care system, McDonough said he found the “candid feedback” from Vermont veterans “invaluable” during his visit.

The Covid-19 pandemic has been “very taxing” for veterans, their families and VA staff who continue to wrestle with burnout and fatigue, while caring for both veteran and non-veteran Vermonters, McDonough said. 

It’s important that the Vermont delegation recently authorized more pay for doctors, nurses, nursing and physician assistants in the VA, he said, because “we should be much more competitive with our salaries.”

The VA also needs to be equipped to handle the next phase of the pandemic, McDonough said, including researching long Covid and addressing deferred care. 

“Vermont is one of three systems in the country where we are testing ways to more quickly address issues related to health complications because of deferred care,” he said.

Local leaders like Lilly and Rush have alerted him to the housing crisis in Vermont and the VA is looking into the possibility of a locality pay differential, he said.

“The high prices of real estate, the high cost of living that’s been associated with the impact of the pandemic and the influx of new Vermonters is having an impact on it,” he said. “We’ll stay on top of this until we get it right.”