President Trump announced the ouster of David Shulkin as secretary of Veterans Affairs this week, nominating longtime White House physician Adm. Ronny Jackson as his replacement. Shulkin had come under withering criticism from lawmakers on Capitol Hill over his travel expenses and a blistering inspector general's report on conditions at the VA.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont, is the ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee and former chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs. He joined us to discuss the reforming the VA, Jackson's nomination and more.
The following is a transcript of the interview with Sanders that aired Sunday, April 1, 2018, on "Face the Nation."
MARGARET BRENNAN: We turn now to Vermont independent Senator Bernie Sanders who sits on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. He joins us from Burlington in his home state this morning. Senator the VA is the largest health care system in this country. Will you support Dr. Ronnie Jackson as the nominee?
SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: Well we know nothing about what Dr. Jackson stands for and what his vision is for the VA. But Margaret this is what I will tell you. What concerns me very much is that right now in Washington we have a family called the Koch brothers, third wealthiest family in America a family that is prepared with a few of their other billionaire friends to spend four hundred million dollars on the coming elections. They are now the most powerful political force in America, stronger than the Democratic National Committee or the Republican National Committee. Their view has been we have got to privatize, privatize and privatize. And what Dr. Shulkin, who Trump just fired this week has told us is that the reason for his firing is that he resisted privatization of the Veterans Administration. Now I work very closely with the major veterans organizations, the American Legion, VFW , DAV Vietnam vets all of the veterans organizations. And what they say is they want to strengthen the VA not dismember it, not privatize it it. So we will see what Dr. Jackson has to say.
BRENNAN: Well the White House says at this time they have no intent to privatize the VA. Do you know what the Trump administration policy is?
SANDERS: Yeah of course I do. They have been putting more and more money into the private sector with VA money. I do not believe them on that issue. I think they are listening to the Koch brothers and I think that that is a very, very bad idea. If you listen to veterans all across this country as I do they will tell you sure there are problems with the VA but by and large once they get into the system they are proud of the quality that the - quality care that the VA provides in fact the American Legion has just come out with a publication which vigorously opposes privatization. So I do believe that the Trump administration no matter what they are now saying I think they are working on behalf of the Koch brothers, look these are the guys, Koch brothers who want to privatize everything. You have a Trump administration that in their budget, the Trump budget proposed 500 billion dollar cuts in Medicare. Trillion dollar cuts in Medicaid. You have a Secretary of Education who doesn't believe in public education a head of the EPA.
BRENNAN: Sir on the issue of the VA you did last year vote for a bill that allowed at least more leeway for veterans and their doctors -
BRENNAN: - to decide whether they wanted to opt in for private care. So it sounds like you are open to some private sector option here.
SANDERS: Well there has always been private sector option if you live in a rural community you don't want 75, 80 year old veterans to travel two hours to get a physical examination. If there is a VA facility in the country that is not treating veterans in a timely manner of course you want to allow veterans to go to the private sector. That is the case now that has always been the case. But what the Koch brothers want and what I feared the Trump administration wants is to rip that wide open and to take many. We got a 200 billion dollar veterans budget.
SANDERS: There are special corporate interests that want a big chunk of that money. We must not allow that to happen.
BRENNAN: Senator we have to take a quick break and we'll talk to you on the other side of it. We'll be right back.
SANDERS: Thank you.
BRENNAN: Welcome back to "Face the Nation." I'm Margaret Brennan. We're back now with Vermont independent Senator Bernie Sanders who is going to be asking some tough questions of that next nominee to be the VA secretary, Senator. The VA says the average wait time at some facilities can be as long as 100 days. President says he's not happy with the speed of reform there. What is the source of this problem?
SANDERS: Well look the VA is the largest integrated health care system in the country. And as I said previously if you asked the veterans organizations they by and large think the VA is providing good quality care. You know Margaret there is a lot of attention paid to the VA because it's a government agency. But I've got news for you. People all over this country when they want to get to a doctor or they need hospital care they don't get in the very next day. So I am sure that there are some VA facilities where the waiting time is too long. That has got to be addressed. There are other VA facilities for example I know here in Vermont that if you are dealing with a psychiatric crisis, an emotional crisis you get in that day that's pretty good. So the VA does a lot of good things. It has problems. We have got to improve the VA. But I think we've got to listen to the veterans of this country and not privatize it.
BRENNAN: Senator you also sit on the Environment Committee and you've been a harsh critic of EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. He's facing a number of questions about ethics and these new reports that he rented a residence here in Washington partly owned by the wife of a top energy lobbyist whose firm did business with the EPA. Do you think your committee should hold hearings on this?
SANDERS: I do. But I think the issue goes well beyond that problem. The issue goes to the fact that the vast majority of people in this country understand that climate change is real. It is already doing devastating problems throughout our nation and throughout the world and yet we have a president and a head of the EPA who do not even recognize the reality of climate change let alone the need to transform our energy system away from fossil fuel to energy efficiency and sustainable energy. So you got a guy who's head of the EPA now who is nothing more than a front man for the fossil fuel industry and that is a very serious problem and the Congress has got to stand up and oppose that line of policy.
BRENNAN: I imagine you oppose the lowering of emission standards that the administration is expected to announce this week.
SANDERS: Well, of course. I mean what we have got to do is understand that we have over the last number of years made success against air pollution and against water pollution. We have made some success in transforming our energy system and the idea to go back and listen to the short term needs of the coal industry or the oil industry makes no sense to me at all. Look, here is the truth. What the scientific community is telling us is that climate change is one of the great environmental crises facing this planet and if we don't get a handle on that we're going to be leaving this planet - a planet to our kids, that is not healthy or habitable. We've got to address that. The Trump administration is moving in exactly the wrong direction.
BRENNAN: Sir you have been critical of the Israeli government's decision to use lethal force against Palestinian demonstrators killing 15 wounding over 700. The Trump administration has stopped short of calling on Israel for restraint. Should they explicitly do so.
SANDERS: Yes they should look, Gaza as I think everybody knows is a humanitarian disaster. The unemployment rate there is beyond comprehension. And there is just enormous unrest. What the function of the United States government should be right now is to sit down with the Israelis sit down with the Palestinians and figure out how, we can rebuild Gaza and also to tell the Israelis that when you've got tens and tens of thousands of people protesting, they cannot overreact and the idea of 15 or so people being killed and hundreds being wounded is - is to me unacceptable.
BRENNAN: We should note the Palestinian Authority already did boycott a meeting at the White House recently to talk about rebuilding Gaza. Senator thank you so much for your time.
We'll be right back with our political panel.
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