Sanders, VA secretary push against privatization in White River Junction VA visit

  • From left, Dr. Brett Rusch, executive director of the VA White River Junction health care system, and Ryan Lilly, director of the Veterans Integrated Service Network for New England, listen as Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., talks to Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough about the limited access veterans have to dental coverage through the VA. Alex Driehaus / Valley News

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 4/16/2022 3:01:34 PM
Modified: 4/16/2022 3:00:14 PM

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough, in a visit to the White River Junction VA Medical Center this week, said there was “no way” that he or President Joe Biden would push for increased privatization of veterans’ health care during their tenure.

Instead, McDonough, who previously served as President Barack Obama’s chief of staff and has held his current post for about a year, said that the VA system needs to invest in its aging infrastructure to the tune of some $18 billion.

“If we do not invest in modern infrastructure in the VA, (that’s the) real risk toward privatization,” he said during a news conference held in the lobby of the Granite Building on the medical center’s campus.

McDonough’s White River Junction visit, at the invitation of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., came following the release of a report last month that recommended closing the White River Junction facility’s emergency department and instead opening an urgent care service.

The report, which McDonough said had seeds in the Trump administration and the Mission Act of 2018, also recommends consolidating leadership teams from the White River Junction and Manchester VA facilities, as well as reducing the number of residential rehabilitation treatment program beds in White River Junction from 14 to 12.

It also suggests developing a facilities plan to consolidate services and eliminate outdated buildings. The report also urges the closing of several community-based outpatient clinics in the Twin States, including those in Littleton, N.H.; Conway N.H.; Newport, Vt.; and Brattleboro, Vt.

In response to the report last month, Sanders, as well as Sens. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H.; Maggie Hassan, D-N.H.; and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. co-signed a letter to McDonough expressing their concerns that the recommendations would “risk moving towards privatization and decreased access to VA care for veterans.”

On Wednesday, Sanders, who is a former chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, said he would like to see VA services expand, rather than shrink. For example, he made a pitch to McDonough to establish a dental clinic in Burlington. Vermont is the only state in the country without a VA dental clinic, he said. Sanders and McDonough were slated to visit the Burlington outpatient clinic on Thursday afternoon.

Sanders said Wednesday that he had recently visited the community-based outpatient clinic in Newport, Vt., in Vermont’s remote Northeast Kingdom. The facility is “important for that part of our state,” he said.

McDonough said that the VA has increased the number of referrals it makes to private providers in recent years, following the enactment of the Mission Act and due to the pressures of the COVID-19 pandemic. Still, he said, the goal is to ensure that veterans get timely access to high-quality care, in a venue they want and with the best possible outcomes.

In an effort to bolster the VA’s workforce in a tight labor market, it has recently increased salaries for nurses, he said. Sanders pointed to efforts in the Vermont Legislature to increase funding for nurse education programs as another way to address the “crisis” in nursing staffing.

The recommendations included in the report still have many hoops to jump through before they eventually land on the president’s desk. The Asset and Infrastructure Review Commission, which is still being formed, will hold public hearings, visit VA facilities, meet with employees and partners, and listen to veterans before submitting final recommendations to the president, Katherine Tang, a VA spokeswoman, said last month. They also will require congressional approval to move forward.

During his visit in White River Junction, McDonough said he was meeting with VA employees, “drawing inspiration” and finding out “what they need from us.”

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at or 603-727-3213.

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