As Congress has lurched and stumbled from one crisis to another, perfecting the art of dodge and delay, a deal forged by Sen. Bernard Sanders, Vermontís independent senator, stands as a rare accomplishment.
As chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, it fell to Sanders to craft a response to the veteransí health care scandal that came to light this summer. The nation learned that wait times at some Veterans Affairs hospitals sometimes lasted for many months and hospitals were altering documents to hide the problem. Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki lost his job as a result, and Congress faced the challenge of responding.
The outcome was a bill that appropriates nearly $17 billion to the Department of Veterans Affairs, offsetting only $5 billion through fees and savings. The bill allows veterans who are forced to wait too long for appointments or who live more than 40 miles away from a veteransí facility to obtain care from private providers. It also includes $5 billion for additional doctors and other providers and for improvements to Veterans Affairs facilities.
The scale of the bill is noteworthy; it has been called the most significant expansion of government since Republicans took over the House in 2010. In order to win passage of the bill, Sanders had to forge a compromise with the Republican chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, Rep. Jeff Miller of Florida. Sanders insisted that the bill would not secure its funding by gutting other programs. Sanders also pushed for hiring more doctors and other personnel and for expanding veteransí facilities. Miller found he had to grit his teeth in going along with Sandersí demands.
The reason is that no one, Republican or Democrat, wants to be seen turning his or her back on veterans, which raises a question. It takes nothing away from a veteranís service to ask why Congress feels obliged to help a veteran discharged from the Army while ignoring the needs of the construction worker who loses his job and his health care, or the teachers and students working in substandard schools, or the children sickened by polluted air.
It is argued that veterans have earned the care they receive as part of the bargain they made in serving the nation. But there are many ways to serve the nation. Americans working in the fields, factories, fast-food joints, offices, schools, hospitals and Wal-Mart stores require health care as surely as veterans do. Veterans sometimes demand care for injuries or conditions directly linked to their service. But often they receive the ordinary kind of health care that all citizens need.
Republicans have twisted themselves into pretzel shapes arguing that the nation has an obligation to veterans but not to others. Democrats, in passing the Affordable Care Act, recognized that everyone deserves care but the system had a way of leaving millions on the sidelines. The wait time endured by veterans has been scandalous. What about the wait times endured by millions unable to get appointments because they donít have coverage, or because the specialists they need are not available or the physicians in their towns are not taking new patients?
The Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare, was an effort to ensure that ordinary American citizens receive the kind of respect embodied in Sandersí bill for veterans. Republicans felt they had no choice except to vote for big government to ensure that veteransí needs are not neglected.
Thus, in the case of veterans, reality trumped ideology. If we could introduce more Republicans to the reality of our crumbling infrastructure, the dangers of climate change and the need to bolster education, then the nation might be able to rise out of the swamp of partisanship.
It is ironic that the senator who some might have expected to be one of the most ideologically extreme was the one who was able to bridge the partisan divide. Sen. John McCain praised Sandersí ďtenacity and passion on behalf of Americaís veterans.Ē Sanders noted that he has worked effectively across the aisle since his days as mayor of Burlington. And with the veterans bill he may have secured his worthiest achievement.
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