Sanders speaks to vets in Bennington

BENNINGTON — Attending an American Legion dinner meeting here Friday, Bernie Sanders reaffirmed his commitment to adequate funding for veteran's health care services.

The independent Vermont senator capped a day-long tour of Southern Vermont sites, speaking before more than 160 legionnaires from posts around the state at the service organization's Mid-Winter Conference, hosted by Bennington's Post 13.

"I want to strengthen the VA (Veterans Administration)," Sanders said. "Right now, there are too many [staff] vacancies at the VA."

Speaking later to the media, he said there are some 30,000 staffing vacancies nationally at all levels at clinics and other VA facilities. While care centers are serving patients, Sanders said, he wants to ensure that the federal department is adequately funded and staffed so that veterans receive care "in a timely manner."

In Washington, he told those attending the dinner at the Benevolent Order of the Elks lodge, some in Congress are pushing for privatization of VA health care services, under which vets would be given vouchers to receive care from private providers.

"I believe that is a bad idea," Sanders said.

"Nobody would tell you the VA is perfect," he said, adding, "But the truth is, especially in this state, most people are proud of the care they are getting at the VA, and they want us to defend that care. And I intend to do that as best I can."

Following his remarks, Sanders touched on other issues, including the ongoing probe into possible collusion between the campaign to elect Donald Trump president in 2016 and Russian officials or operatives and possible obstruction.

"I have a lot of respect for Bob [Robert] Mueller," he said of the special counsel and former FBI director leading the investigation. "I think he should be left alone to do his job without interference."

News reports have focused on recent intense White House and Congressional Republican criticism of Mueller and the validity of the investigation.

On the tax structure overhaul that passed the Republican-controlled Congress in December and was signed by President Trump, Sanders said he voted against it.

"I voted against the tax bill because 84 percent of the benefit over 10 years will go to the top 1 percent," he said, adding that "when we talk about tax reform, it has got to be about the middle class, for working families, not for billionaires."

Sanders addressed efforts to ensure extension of the DACA immigration policy for some 800,000 young people who were born in the United States to illegal immigrants, allowing them to remain in the country.

"Polls show that this is what the American people want," he said.

Sanders, as well as most Democrats in Congress, fought for a return to the Obama administration policy during a recent federal budget standoff that resulted in a brief government shutdown. "I think what you have there is a moral issue," he said.

The DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) policy allowed some individuals who entered the country as minors to receive a renewable period of deferred action from deportation. It was rescinded last fall by the Trump administration, leaving those youth at risk of being deported.

During stops earlier Friday, Sanders attended a college and career fair event in Springfield, a Head Start classroom and a senior housing facility in Brattleboro.

Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont and Email: @BB_therrien on Twitter.


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