On Wednesday’s broadcast of MSNBC’s “The Rachel Maddow Show,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) took on his critics that have argued he was an apologist for the Veterans Administration based on earlier statements he had made. Sanders acknowledged there were glowing deficiencies in the agency’s hospital system, some perhaps criminal. However, he said that root of the problem is the lack of resources within the hospital system to see to proper care of veterans.
Transcript as follows:
MADDOW: I want to ask you to respond actually to Paul`s criticism, saying that essentially you have been apologist for the V.A. in your role as the chairman of the Senate Veterans Committee. I want to ask your reaction for that comment from him.
SANDERS: Well, needless to say, I don`t quite agree. A few months ago, I brought forth what was widely to be believed the most comprehensive veterans legislation to improve the lives of the veterans of this country, in terms of health care, employment, education, advanced appropriations, and many other areas, have the support of every veterans organization in the country, including Mr. Rieckhoff`s organization. Unfortunately, we were only able to get two Republican votes to support that.
Rachel, look. The allegation — the report that came out today is enormously serious. It is beyond belief and unacceptable that anybody is manipulating data. Those people must be punished.
But we also must be pointed out, and what took place at a hearing that I held a week ago Thursday, and this is extremely important, is that we not throw the baby out with the bath water. What every veteran`s organization testified to when asked by me, whether or not V.A. health care is good, what they said, it is good to excellent.
The problem that we are having now is having to do with access. And that has a lot to do with the fact that in the last four to five years, 4 million new veterans have come into the V.A. health care system because they perceive it to be a good system.
And in my view, there are areas of the country, of the Southwest, Phoenix, the South, other areas that have experienced a huge increase of new veterans, of older veterans, of the Vietnam War era, and the crises that the V.A. has not stood up and said, you know what, we need more resources to take care of veterans if we`re going to provide them with quality health care in a timely manner, something that every veteran in this country deserves and must receive.
MADDOW: Let me ask you about one specific element in the inspector general`s interim report today, which I found sort of blood curdling. And it was about 1,700 veterans at Phoenix, who are not on the list, who are not on the wait list.
And what the inspector general`s interim report says that as a direct consequence of not appropriately putting veterans on the wait list, Phoenix leadership significantly understated the time new patients waited for their primary care appointments. And they did in their performance appraisal accomplishments, which is one of the factors considered for awards and salary increases.
So, at their meetings where they`re negotiating essentially their own bonuses and the basis of their own bonuses, that`s when these numbers came into play in terms of what was real versus what these veterans lived experience was. Thereafter, the inspector general notes they will be looking into potential criminal allegations, if they find them and working with the Department of Justice.
SANDERS: And the U.S. attorney is now working with them on that.
Rachel, again, what I think the point is, is that if they did not have the resources, the doctors, the nurses, the other staff needed to take care of veterans within the very ambitious goal set by the V.A., which was 14 days, that is better, by and large, than the private sector. What they should have done is run the flag up the pole and made it very, very clear, we do not have the resources.
And instead, what you had is people manipulating data, which is completely unacceptable.
The other point that I would make, and I`m chairman of a subcommittee that deals with primary care, if you think we only have a problem in terms of waiting periods, within the V.A., you would not be right.
We have tens of millions of people today in America who were not in the V.A., who cannot access primary health care. We have in cities all over America, very long waiting periods of time. And that is because we lack sufficient numbers of primary health care physicians and nurses, all over this country. And we have got to make a real commitment, because what the experts tell us, we need 50,000 new doctors within the next 10 years alone.
Last point that I want to make, and again, I want to put this into context. You mentioned the tragedy that took place in the DOD facility, where two people died recently. I don`t know if you`re aware of this, but there was a study that came out a year ago, just on that issue, for America as a whole. And what the study showed is that between, and no one refuted this, between 200,000 and 400,000 people a year, this is not within military hospitals or the V.A., are dying from medical errors in our hospitals.
What`s my point? My point is that as a nation, we have serious health care issues. We have problems within the V.A. that must be addressed, because when men and women put their lives on the line to defend this country, they are entitled to the best care in a timely way.
But anyone who thinks that we can just, you know, make a quick brief statement or hold a press conference and solve the problem is wrong. We need far more doctors in this country, we need to get them into the V.A. as quickly as possible, and we need to guarantee veterans the best quality health care that we can provide.
MADDOW: Yes, I agree with you on point, and there is also something special about the V.A. which is that we have made an explicit commitment. The United States government is the provider of record to those people, so we are both writing the check and expected to cash it.
And if the problem here is not just the same sort of medical errors and the same sort of problems that happen in other health care, but a systemic effort to cover up bad care that is being delivered, a systemic effort to lie about the way that veterans are being treated, that is a problem that is beyond health care. That`s a political problem.
SANDERS: That is, Rachel, a huge problem that has got to be addressed, that has got to be addressed immediately.
MADDOW: Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee — sir, thank you very much for your time tonight.
SANDERS: Thank you.
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