The cost of war is great, and it is far more than the hundreds of billions of dollars we spend on planes, tanks, missiles and guns.
The cost of war is more than 6,800 service members who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. The cost of war is caring for the spouses and children who have to rebuild their lives after the loss of their loved ones. It's about hundreds of thousands of men and women coming home from war with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, many of them having difficulty keeping jobs in order to pay their bills. It's about high divorce rates. It's about the terrible tragedy of veterans committing suicide.
The cost of war is about supporting family caregivers for disabled veterans. It's about 2,500 young men and women who would like to start families but are unable to do so because of war wounds.
The bottom line is that if we are going to send people off to battle, we must understand what the war experience means to their lives and do everything we can to make them whole when they return. If we can't do that, we shouldn't be sending them into war in the first place. That's the contract we have with the people who put their lives on the line to defend us.
Sen. John McCain and I recently introduced legislation that addresses some of the significant problems facing the Department of Veterans Affairs. In a rare note of bipartisanship, the Senate passed our bill by a vote of 93-3. It is now in a conference committee with the House.
It is unacceptable that some 57,000 veterans are on lists waiting too long to be scheduled for medical appointments. It is inexcusable that another 64,000 veterans over the last 10 years never received the care they requested after enrolling in the VA health care system. Veterans in the VA health care system must get the quality care they need in a timely manner.
Our legislation provides that veterans around the country on long VA waiting lists will be able to get the care they need outside the VA. That means access to private doctors, community health centers, and at Department of Defense and Indian Health Service facilities. At the same time, VA's ability to provide timely care both now and in the future must be strengthened by building capacity within the system. This is done by ensuring VA has all the necessary resources, including enough doctors, nurses and other health care providers.
The Sanders-McCain bill also addresses the crisis in accountability and transparency at the VA. It is inexcusable that some employees have lied and manipulated data. The culture of the VA must change and these issues have to be dealt with immediately. The secretary must have more authority to fire or discipline high-level managers who have violated the trust that was placed in them. Our bill would do that.
Further, our legislation would provide that those veterans who live more than 40 miles from a VA facility would also have the option of getting care outside the VA. This means that some veterans who today must travel hundreds of miles for care will be able to see a doctor closer to their homes.
The VA operates the largest integrated health care system in the nation, treating nearly 6.5 million patients each year. According to veterans with whom I have spoken, veteran service organizations that represent millions of veterans, and independent studies, the quality of care provided by VA, once veterans are in the system, is good. The crisis that we currently are facing is one of access, getting veterans into the system in a reasonable period of time.
Some of my colleagues are concerned that the proposal Sen. McCain and I developed, and a similar proposal passed in the House, will cost significant sums of money. They are right. The sad truth, however, is that war is an extremely expensive proposition – in terms of human life, human suffering and financial cost. Taking care of veterans is a cost of war. It's that simple.
Congress has been discussing the serious problems in the VA for months. Strong legislation taking care of our veterans must be passed now. It's time for action.
Bernie Sanders is an independent senator from Vermont and chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs.