Bernie Sanders and his supporters are quick to tout a universal, single payer health care plan for the whole nation. Sanders’ experience with the health care industry is controversial to say the least. Although he has never worked in the industry (nor worked outside of politics at all) he was the chairman of the Senate oversight committee on Veteran’s Affairs during one of the VA’s most tumultuous scandals. If you’re not familiar, here’s a quick refresher.
Back in 2014, during Sanders’ tenure, the VA was investigated for a massive scandal involving the gross negligence of administrators, which resulted in worsened illness and the deaths of several military veterans. The investigation found that, in just one of the clinics, “more than 12,700 appointments, had been waiting more than 90 days to be addressed.” But rationed care and extended wait times were just the tip of the iceberg in this scandal.
Perhaps the most insidious discovery made during the investigation dealt with “secret waiting lists” in which veterans who sought treatment were systematically and intentionally pushed to later and later dates. Initial investigations suspected that this practice caused the death of at least 40 veterans in Arizona alone. Since then, leaked documents have shown nationally that an estimated 238,000 veterans (roughly 1/3rd of those in the backlog) died while awaiting care. Whistle blowers have revealed other troubling trends within the VA, particularly with record keeping and transparency. In total, at least 110 VA clinics have been implicated for secret wait lists and other forms of illicit health care rationing. After the subject came up in a congressional hearing, Sanders responded, “Did the delays in care of these people on the secret waiting list actually cause these deaths? We don’t know.”
While Bernie downplayed these deaths and the scandal at large, he also took it a step further by protecting the employees linked these secret lists. Following the investigation, a bill sponsored by Marco Rubio and others was proposed to fire the negligent employees. The bill would have granted the VA president the power to fire the nefarious employees for grievous actions (such as the secret lists). Even the though this legislation had the support of both parties and several vet groups, such as the American Legion, Sanders took the side of the VA unions and shot down the bill. As said by Betsy McCaughey: “Sanders’ allegiance is to public-sector unions, and to serve them, he betrayed vets. You wouldn’t know that from his campaign-trail boasts.”
Sanders’ allegiance to unions is no secret, of Bernie’s top 20 donors, 18 are unions. In addition, at least 2 of the super PAC’s that support Sanders are union based. This is a dissonant image for a candidate running on the platform of removing money from politics. (In fact, unions contribute far more money politics than any other private or lobbying group, and it’s not even close).
Aside from Bernie’s unflinching allegiance to unions, even over US veterans’ lives, this scandal becomes problematic for Sanders’ presidential ambitions for several reasons. Many vet groups and others have spoken up against Bernie’s disjointed attitude while he chaired the VA committee. One glaring example of this disconnect is that while the House VA committee held 42 hearings on VA oversight, the Senate VA committee (which was chaired by Sanders) held only seven hearings on the matter.
As the dust surrounding the scandal began to settle, Sanders was criticized for his response to the aftermath. During an interview with CNN’s Chris Cuomo, Cuomo characterized Sanders’ attitude as disingenuous, saying, “Is it unfair criticism, Senator, to see that – you sound like a lawyer defending the hospital, as opposed to a senator trying to make sure the right thing is done….it gets a little bit of a bad feeling here about what the motivation is for these hearings: whether it’s to defend the V.A., or to do the hard truth of accountability and make change.”
Sanders defense for the VA’s actions, and his stance on keeping the employees who used secret lists is as follows, “The point I want to make is that when you are dealing with 200,000 people, if you did better than any other health institution in the world, there would be thousands of people every single day who would say ‘I don’t like what I’m getting.’ And we have to put that all of that in the context of the size of the VA.”
This defense could become a thorn in Sanders’ side come election time. The signature legislation of Bernie’s campaign is a single payer health care system and the VA is currently the closest thing America has to such a medical system. It becomes a model for what socialized health care could look like for the US. Dan Caldwell of Concerned Veterans for America notes:
“For years, many people within the progressive movement and the left touted the VA as an example of what government-run health care could look like for Americans…Based on Bernie Sanders’s ideology, he wanted the government-run system at the VA to work, because it reinforced his view of what government health care should look like for all Americans, not just veterans.”
This is a serious problem for Sanders. After all, if by Sanders’ own admission, his model of socialized health care is destined to have such serious problems, what kind of problems would a national single payer plan have?
This case presents three troubling red flags for Bernie’s campaign:
1) The model for single payer has failed miserably. The VA currently serves less than 3% of the total population, while using money from 100% of taxpayers. Even with such a large subsidy scale, the VA has proven to be ineffective, corrupt and completely negligent.
US veterans in the VA system currently have wait times that would make even Canada’s notoriously long wait times (more than triple the average times in the US) seem short. Hundreds of thousands of veterans have literally died while waiting for care, this vindicates charges against universal health concerning dangerously excessive wait times.
Furthermore, given that the patient/doctor ratio in the VA is even lower than the patient/doctor ratio for the other 97% of America, we can safely assume that the dangerous wait times of the VA would translate, if not increase with the total population. Simply put: The VA case makes a very strong argument that a single payer system would cause extremely long wait times for patients, with thousands of avoidable deaths likely being the end result.
2) There is a reason that people were placed on secret lists. Plainly said, the VA could not keep up with the health care needs of its patients. VA officials resorted to deception as a way to combat the overwhelming demand of care that had gone unmet. If the single payer program couldn’t even meet the needs of 3% of Americans, how could it possibly meet the needs of all Americans?
When the clinics were unable to provide even basic care for the veteran patients, administrators sought to remedy the problem through secret lists and rationing. Not only was the VA incapable of providing elementary care to its patients, but their solution to the problem resulted in more veterans dying. Rather than address the issue, VA officials simply tried to cover it up, and Sanders rewarded them for it. If this is the model of single payer health care, citizens can expect equal treatment and look forward to being ignored.
3) Bernie Sanders chose the wrong side. While veterans were literally dying due to the malicious neglect of VA officials, Sanders chose to side with the perpetrators of the crime, rather than the victims. Despite Bernie’s image as “a man of the people,” this scandal revealed that his loyalties truly lie with the unions that have financed his campaign.
The mere fact that Sanders elected to protect those who allowed veterans to die, instead of defend the veterans themselves, is very damning in itself. The vice president of Concerned Veterans for America, said, “The House needed a partner in the Senate to help flesh out the problems at the VA, and unfortunately Bernie Sanders was not that partner. Jeff Miller and his committee were the ones who pursued this and ultimately uncovered [the VA scandal]… only when the VA scandal broke was when [Sanders] ultimately decided to do oversight hearings.”
Needless to say, the ramifications of the 2014 VA scandal have only begun to take shape. Currently, Sanders is holding a tight race with Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, who has a few serious scandals of her own. If Sanders is able to defeat Hillary and win the Democrat nomination, we can expect to see talk of the VA scandal reemerge.