Commentary by Pete Hegseth, the CEO of Concerned Veterans for America, and the former executive director of Vets for Freedom. Pete is an infantry officer in the Army National Guard, and has served tours in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo Bay.
At a Feb. 4 Capitol Hill press conference, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) presented the case for the omnibus veterans benefits bill he has introduced in the Senate. Sanders stood at a lectern bearing a sign with the key message of the day:
“Keeping our promise to veterans.”
Unfortunately, Sanders’ massive bill, if it were to become law, would do just the opposite, breaking our promises to veterans by piling more responsibilities on the already dysfunctional U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
Known as the Comprehensive Veterans Health and Benefits and Military Retirement Pay Restoration Act of 2014, the Sanders bill is a $30 billion wish list for veterans advocacy groups. By expanding VA health care, restoring cuts to military pensions, and much more, Sanders argues, we can demonstrate our commitment to our nation’s military veterans.
In this Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2013 photo, homeless Korean War veteran Thomas Moore, 79, left, speaks with Boston Health Care for the Homeless street team outreach coordinator Romeena Lee on a sidewalk in Boston. (AP/Steven Senne)
But for all the shiny promises in Sanders’ bill, we should be seriously concerned about the true effect it would have on veterans’ services. In the past, the VA has supplied health care services to veterans with “service-connected” health conditions, to ensure that those with the greatest needs receive priority care.
Even that reasonable standard, however, has been difficult for the VA to meet. The current backlog of veterans waiting for their disability claims to be processed stands at more than 400,000.
Meanwhile, reports proliferate of how veterans who have made it into the system are being underserved. For example, recent reports from "CNN" detail how more than 80 veterans have died or are dying from delayed gastrointestinal diagnoses.
As most veterans and veterans advocates acknowledge, the VA is broken, and as a result is too often providing poor care to the injured and disabled veterans the department serves. Which is why it’s baffling that the Sanders bill would expand the universe of VA beneficiaries, thereby ensuring longer wait times and a further decline in the quality of care.
In this file photo from Feb. 6, 2013, a sign on the parking lot is seen at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic, file)
When asked about the implications of opening up VA services to veterans without service connected conditions, Sanders simply denied that fact: “We are not going to bring one person in, new person in, until we make absolutely certain that the VA can accommodate those people,” he claimed.
By the senator’s bizarre reasoning, increasing the responsibilities on the VA will “reduce those burdens” on the department—a claim that simply beggars belief.
The rationale for the Sanders bill is that with additional staffing and funding, the VA can overcome its dysfunctional performance of recent years.
But in recent years, the VA budget has grown by more than 50 percent, with more staffing and more technology to meet increased demand. Yet by virtually every measure, the department’s performance and delivery of services has worsened.
I don’t doubt that Sen. Sanders wants to do right by veterans, but it seems he doesn’t fully understand the implications of his own bill. If the VA is broken, asking it to do more isn’t going to unbreak it.
[sharequote align="center"]If the VA is broken, asking it to do more isn’t going to unbreak it.[/sharequote]
Or perhaps it means that Sanders’ bill is yet another case in which “we have to pass the bill to find out what’s in it,” as then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi famously said of Obamacare in 2010. If that’s the case, then Congress should run away from Sanders’ bill with the utmost haste.
Moreover, it’s telling that, at this writing, the Sanders’ bill has attracted zero Republican co-sponsors. That suggests the proposal lacks bipartisan support and is perhaps engineered not as a serious policy proposal, but as a handy political cudgel for use in the November elections that will determine control of the Senate. That’s a cynical take, but it’s not unusual in today’s polarized political climate.
Self-proclaimed democratic socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont).
Numerous veterans’ service organizations endorsed the Sanders bill on introduction, but my hope is that they’ll read more closely and fully consider the implications of expanding VA access, which will only lead to poorer service and worse outcomes for veterans.
There are many good things about the Sanders bill; break up those priorities into a series of stand-alone bills, and I could give many of them my steadfast support. For example, Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) has introduced legislation to repeal cuts to military retirees’ pensions, an approach that my organization, Concerned Veterans for America, has endorsed.
My hope is that members of Congress will recognize the overpromising in Sanders bill and opt for more targeted, and effective, reforms to veterans’ services and benefits. That would be the best way to keep our promises to our veterans and their families.
Feature Photo: (AP Photo/The Times-Picayune, Michael DeMocker)
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