Chris Cuomo sparred with Senator Bernie Sanders on Thursday's New Day on CNN over the left-wing politician's scheduled hearing with Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki regarding the V.A. hospitals scandal, where scores of veterans died as they waited for care. Cuomo pointed out that "the mandate for Shinseki when he was put in...was that we knew there were big lapses at the V.A. that had to be addressed, and you could argue they have not been. Isn't it time for accountability?"
When Sanders tried to shift the issue to a critique of CNN's coverage of the scandal, the anchor shot back at the Vermont senator for sounding like an apologist for the government-run health care system: [MP3 audio available here; video below the jump]
CHRIS CUOMO: Is it unfair criticism, Senator, to see that – you sound like a lawyer defending the hospital, as opposed to a senator trying to make sure the right thing is done....it gets a little bit of a bad feeling here about what the motivation is for these hearings: whether it's to defend the V.A., or to do the hard truth of accountability and make change.
Cuomo noted that Senator Sanders is "backing the secretary [Shinseki] and giving some different perspective here" as he introduced his guest. He led the interview by asking, "Do you believe the V.A. is doing what it needs to do by our veterans?" The politician, who identifies himself as a democratic socialist, answered by playing up the apparent satisfaction that veterans have for the federal system:
SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I), VERMONT: ...[I]f you talk to veterans all over this country; if you look at patient satisfaction surveys, what you end up finding is that the V.A. holds up as good or better than private hospitals. By and large, veterans throughout America believe that they're getting pretty good health care.
But here's the main point, Chris: the V.A. serves six and a half million veterans – 200,000 of them every single day. What is clear is that in a system that large, there are problems – and there are some serious problems. So I think that in a pretty good system, there are problems. We have got to get at those problems, because at the end of the day, the people who put their lives on the line to defend us deserve the best quality care in America, and we are going to get at those problems, and we're going to root them out.
The anchor then began pressing Sanders over CNN's own investigation into the scandal, but the senator kept up his defense of the V.A.:
CUOMO: But, you know, Senator, that a big thing driving the concern is that this is not new – not just what we uncovered in the CNN investigation. But the reason – the mandate for Shinseki when he was put in, Senator, was that we knew there were big lapses at the V.A. that had to be addressed, and you could argue they have not been. Isn't it time for accountability?
SANDERS: The answer is, you make a very good point, and that is exactly one of the questions that I'll be asking Secretary Shinseki today. But in terms of these accusations, one of the things, I think, Chris, that we don't want to do is get out in front of ourselves. The truth of the matter is that the V.A. is now – that the inspector general of the V.A., an independent entity, is now investigating what took place in Phoenix. And we do not know what took place in Phoenix. The allegations may be correct; they may not be correct; and that's what we're looking at right now.
CUOMO: Why do you not trust the CNN reporting that Drew Griffin and his team did on this? When they talk about the 40 people, the deadly delays, how – the way the process is run and the waiting game is played – wound up costing lives?
SANDERS: Okay. Can I read you a quote?
SANDERS: All right. This is what CNN said on April 30: 'At least 40 U.S. veterans died waiting for appointments at the Phoenix veterans affairs health care system – many of whom were placed on a secret waiting list' – end of quote. A few days later, this is what CNN said: 'Now, with Dr. Foote' – and Dr. Foote is the physician who made the allegations – 'what Dr. Foote and others have told us is that of the many, many people on that list – all veterans – 40 of them have since passed away.'
The allegation is not that the delay in care caused that; only that that is what is now being investigated. Did the delay in care of these people on the secret waiting list actually cause these deaths? We don't know. But that is what the office of inspector general is, in fact, investigating....
Cuomo then dropped his "you sound like a lawyer defending the hospital," but the left-wing senator continued to try to cast doubt on CNN's investigation, and even tried to downplay the deaths of the veterans:
SANDERS: No, I'm just – that is exactly what I want, Chris. I want the right thing to do. The second statement is exactly correct. We don't know, and that's why we have – why the V.A. has asked an inspector general to investigate that. The first statement is not correct.
CUOMO: Well, hold on a second, Senator. With all due respect, we don't know that the first statement is not correct. You're saying you don't have the proof of it being correct to your satisfaction. This doctor felt that it was correct, and you don't know that it isn't correct.
SANDERS: No. What the second statement said is we don't know.
CUOMO: No! The second statement says we know that they're dead. You're saying you want to connect the dots better. That's fair push-back, but it's not that we know it's incorrect.
SANDERS: We know that people die every day. We don't know why they die. All right – anyhow, Chris, I don't want to argue that point until the cows come home. Here's what you've got: you've got a system that, by and large, I think, works reasonably well for veterans. I think you've got 300,000 employees out there – many of whom who are veterans themselves – who are trying to do their best. You've got some cutting-edge stuff, in terms of tele-health; in terms of complimentary and alternative medicine. There are problems, and we have got to get at those problems. But we need the facts to lead us to where we want to go.
Later in the interview, the CNN anchor wondered "what the motivation is for these hearings: whether it's to defend the V.A., or to do the hard truth of accountability and make change." Senator Sanders promised "the day after the inspector general completes its investigation – I don't know if it's the day after, but as soon as possible – we will do hearings." The Vermont socialist continued by asserting that "when you have waiting lists, may it simply be that the V.A. doesn't have enough doctors and nurses and staff? Are we putting enough money into the V.A.? Is the V.A. appropriating its resources appropriately?...Those are some of the questions that I think we need to explore."
Cuomo ended the segment by asking, "You have not mentioned the secretary, Senator. Do you believe that the secretary has done his job to date?" Sanders answered, in part, that "under very difficult circumstances, Secretary Shinseki has done a good job." He pointed to the veterans affair secretary phasing out the old paper claim system to an electronic and "making some significant progress in reducing" the number of veterans who are homeless.
It should be pointed out that despite rightly hounding his guest on the scandal, the anchor didn't bring up the fact that Attorney General Eric Holder punted on launching an investigation into the issue.