Sanders hears from veterans in Brattleboro

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BRATTLEBORO — U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders says he wants to strengthen Veterans Affairs health care services.

"I think, in general and what I hear in Vermont, is most people think the VA is a pretty good place," the Vermont independent said at the VA clinic in Brattleboro on Thursday. "It's a welcoming place. They've got pretty good care."

There are exceptions to every rule, Sanders told a crowd of veterans after a couple attendees expressed some discontent with service.

"If they're going to do these things, and I'm glad they do do them, why do they keep hiring these guys that are older than dirt?" Carl Greenwood said. "Not meaning you Bernie. They don't care. They just want to go home."

That's true of any medical center, Sanders replied.

"You hear a lot from politicians about how terrible the VA is, right?" Sanders said. "You turn on the television; the VA is having a crisis here, having a crisis there. Yet, I go out in not only Vermont — I'm the former chair of the VA committee so I've had the opportunity to meet veterans around the country. Yes, the VA has its problems. But you know what, so does every other medical facility in this country."

Lisa Lofting told Sanders she was sent to a VA clinic in Springfield to get a mammogram, when she could have had one done locally. A veteran complained about the service around eye care at the White River Junction VA Medical Center. Also reported to Sanders were appointment cancellations without adequate notice.

Altogether, veterans from Vermont have access to five clinics in their home state and two in New Hampshire. One veteran said the Brattleboro clinic could be the best in the state.

Al Montoya, director of White River Junction VA Medical Center, said the organization was taking case management to a "different level" to make sure it could provide care for all veterans. Also, new services are being added at the clinics.

"Over the last year, we've seen a phenomenal amount of growth at White River Junction," he said, adding that for fiscal year 2016, "We saw 26,245 veterans. I don't think we've ever seen over 26,000."

Efforts are underway to reduce the number of days a patient stays in the hospital — knowing the longer a patient stays, the more likely it is they will become sick. Over the last couple months, according to Montoya, the average stay at the medical center has been reduced from 6.14 days to about 4.15 days.

The VA's free five-week residential recovery program in Vermont was touted by Montoya and Sanders for its quality.

"Tragically, opioid addiction, alcoholism and heroin addiction is getting worse," Sanders said. "This is a good program. This is tough stuff to deal with. Addiction is not easy. Alcoholism is not easy."

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at 802-254-2311, ext. 273, or @CMaysBR.

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