Sen. Bernie Sanders, chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs, reacted with sadness to the news that Eric Shinseki resigned from his post as head of the VA.
"Secretary Shinseki is an American hero who courageously served his country in war, rose to be the Army chief of staff and has dedicated his distinguished career to helping his fellow soldiers and veterans," said Sanders in a statement. "I am sad that he resigned."
On the Thom Hartmann show a few hours later, he hailed Shinseki's "incredible courage" as army chief of staff during the Bush Administration when he stood up to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld by warning that the Iraq War would not be easy and would require hundreds of thousands of more troops than Rumsfeld said.
At the VA, Shinseki did "some very good things," Sanders told Hartmann, including transforming millions of paper claims into electronic ones and generally providing good quality care. But Sanders acknowledged that there were serious problems at the VA, and he denounced the "reprehensible behavior" of the VA employees who had been manipulating wait times for vets needing medical care. He demanded that those employees be punished.
Sanders had been urging Shinseki not to resign and saw much of the attack on him and the VA as politically motivated. "The Republican Party and the Koch brothers and others are putting money into television ads" denouncing the VA, he said on MSNBC just hours before Shinseki's resignation.
And in a conversation with John Nichols of The Nation a couple of weeks ago, Sanders elaborated on this point. "There is right now, as we speak, a concerted effort to undermine the VA" and to tarnish all public social service programs, including enormously popular ones like Medicare and Social Security, he told Nichols. "You have folks out there now, the Koch Brothers and others, who want to radically change the nature of society, and either make major cuts in all of these institutions, or maybe do away with them entirely."
On the Thom Hartmann show, Sanders noted that some conservatives want to replace the VA and force veterans onto the private market. "I will oppose any efforts to privatize the VA," said Sanders. "That would be a disaster for many, many veterans."
Sanders has noted that some of the problems at the VA stem, on the supply side, from a lack of primary care doctors and nurses, and on the demand side, from all the casualties that have resulted from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Another contributing cause, he has said, is the lack of sufficient funding from Congress.
Sanders pledges to reintroduce a bill, which Republicans blocked last winter, to increase funding for the VA and veterans' health care. "Congress must do everything possible to make certain that the VA has the financial resources and administrative accountability to provide the high-quality health care and timely access to care that our veterans earned and deserve," Sanders said.
When Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) complained last week about the $21 billion, 10-year cost of that comprehensive bill, Sanders responded: "If you think it's too expensive to take care of our veterans, then don't send them to war."
Sanders will hold a hearing on this bill and the subject of VA health care on June 5.