Erroneous New York Times Article on Bernie Sanders

I did this piece for the American Prospect Blog on Times coverage of Bernie Sanders and the VA.

The Times’s Sloppy Reporting on Sanders and Veterans Health

On Sunday, The New York Times published a wildly misleading front-page story titled, “Faith in Agency Clouded Bernie Sanders’ V.A. Response.”

The gist of the piece was that Sanders, blinded by his friendliness to government agencies, did not acknowledge the VA scandal of long wait times for services until very late in the game. But read far enough into the detail of the story and the headline is not documented at all—quite the opposite is true.

As the Times admits much later in the piece, Sanders, as chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee, realized that Republicans were seriously underfunding the VA, and fought hard for adequate financing. It was the underfunding, not the deeply flawed agency of the Times’s imagination, that led to the long wait times.

The Times got the story wrong in its earlier reporting of this trumped up scandal, and its attack on Sanders relies on its earlier mistakes. For nearly two years, its reporters have been shaping and amplifying a deeply flawed and factually challenged mainstream media narrative that dovetails neatly with the privatizing agenda of right-wing Republicans in Washington.

As I reported for the Prospect, the VHA is far more cost effective and compassionate than other counterparts in the health-care system treating comparable patients. The right’s agenda, a threat that Sanders appreciated early on, is to privatize much of the VHA. The Times relies heavily on latter day “Veterans Services Organizations” for its sources.

Wade Miller, a Heritage Foundation-funded critic of the VHA, expresses the GOP bias well when he argues that, “the best way we can help veterans is by reducing their need to use the VA.” According to Miller, the “biggest hurdle” to meeting that increased demand is the very fact that veterans’ health care is provided by “a government program.”

In the front-page Monday story by Steve Eder and Dave Philipps, the Times revisited congressional debates about VHA funding and service delivery in 2014 that were much influenced by this perspective. However, the GOP’s ideological fixation with shrinking government is cited only in passing, via a single reference to the views of “some Republican Presidential candidates and a veterans’ organization backed by the billionaires Charles G. and David H. Koch.”

Instead, Eder and Phillips focus their criticism on Sanders. When Republican opposition to measures like SB 1982, a $21 billion funding package that Sanders introduced in early 2014, helped aggravate the longer wait times that became a Times-reported “scandal” later that same year, Sanders faced “a moment of crisis,” according to Eder and Phillips. “His deep seated faith in the fundamental goodness of government blinded him, at least at first, to a dangerous breakdown in the one corner of it he was supposed to police.”

What was slowing Sanders down and revealing supposed leadership shortcomings, then and now? In part, the Times contends, it was because he “initially saw a conservative plot” to discredit and undermine the VHA so more veterans would support dismantling of the VHA and its replacement with private sector health-care coverage instead. Was this threat a mere figment of the senator’s imagination? Apparently not, according to his rival for the Democratic presidential nomination. Just three days before the Times piece debunking Sanders’s defense of the VHA appeared, Hillary Clinton told MSNBC debate viewers the push for VHA privatization is “another part of the Koch brothers’ agenda. They’ve actually formed an organization to try to being to convince Americans we should no longer have guaranteed health care, specialized health care for our veterans.” Like Sanders—and under pressure from him on this issue—Clinton said she would work with other “veterans’ service organizations, the veterans of America” to “fix the V.A.” but would “never let it be privatized.”

The group Clinton was referring to is called Concerned Veterans for America, which has few actual members, and unlike real Veterans Service Organizations—like the Disabled Veterans of America (DAV), Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and Paralyzed Veterans of America and Amvets—it provides no veterans services. Until only six months ago, these four traditional VSOs worked in an alliance called the Independent Budget. In the past, this coalition provided Congress and the White House with its own assessment of the VA’s funding needs. Sanders consulted all of those groups when crafting S.B. 1982 and they supported it.

The other veterans’ group the Times reporters quote heavily is Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA). According to a monograph, by Stephen Trynosky, on the political environment that now influences the fate of the VHA, the IAVA is a new kind of VSO—one that has “assiduously embraced a fundraising and revenue model focused heavily on corporate underwriting. … The group’s 2012 annual report lists a constellation of corporate donors and wealthy patrons, some of whom appear to have an interest in the increased privatization of VHA services.”

The Times presents the $21 billion price tag for SB 1982 as excessive, when $21 billion spent over ten years is just a sliver of the VA’s total annual budget of about $160 billion, and miniscule compared to the more than a trillion of direct spending on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars that have created so much demand for VHA services. As the Times belatedly acknowledges late in the piece, Sanders did work effectively with his Republican counterparts to enact a $16 billion bill—less than was needed but enough to finance improvements. So apparently, the $21 billion that Sanders originally called for wasn’t so crazy.

In short, Sanders saw the privatization threat and the consequences of underfunding well in advance. He did his best to deal with both threats but was blocked by Republicans. As the Times admits very late in the piece, Sanders’s original funding bill with a price-tag of $21 billion actually got 56 votes in the Senate—not a fringe measure at all—but was blocked by a filibuster. In fact, Republican opponents of the bill weren’t “puzzled” by it as the Times reports—they were adamant that more money should not be spent on veterans’ health care—unless that money is channeled, through the Choice Act and other Republican-sponsored legislative proposals, to private sector providers. Judging by the facts of the case, a better headline and storyline of the piece could have been, “Sanders Resisted GOP Assault on Veterans Benefits.”

The Times needs to move its singular fixation on wait times—real or exaggerated—and also inform its readers about the things the VA does well. A recent study, for example, compared the outcomes for 700,000 California cancer patients who were treated at the VHA with patients covered by private insurance, or Medicare and Medicaid. Particularly relevant to the current wait time debate, it documents the fact that although veterans had to wait longer for access to care than those covered by the other insurance programs, they received more appropriate treatment and had better outcomes. As one of its authors Kenneth W. Kizer MD, MPH (and former Under Secretary for Health at the VA) explains, short delays in care, while unacceptable, may not be as important a variable as getting the right kind of care. Which is why, according to Garry Augustine, executive director of the Disabled Veterans of America, most of DAV’s 1.3 million members want delays in care to be fixed and the system to be well-funded because they “prefer to be treated at the VHA where they receive holistic services in one place instead of the kind of disjointed care they get in the private sector.”

And check out Suzanne Gordon’s in-depth take on the Veterans Health Administration’s strong performance in the face of right-wing attacks from our Fall 2015 issue. 

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