(From L-R) Dean Zehle; President Garimella; Senator Sanders; Secretary McDonough; and medical students Edward Simon, Bradford Clark, Jacob Cappiello, John Fernan, Tonya Conley and Justin Schulz. (Photo: David Seaver)
During a special Town Hall at the Larner College of Medicine April 14, a University of Vermont medical student told U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Secretary Denis McDonough that her medical specialty choice would hinge on “What can help me pay off my debt.” The discussion featured remarks and a Q&A session with Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), former chair and current member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, and McDonough and focused on opportunities for physicians at the VA.
McDonough was in Vermont at the invitation of Sanders as part of a two-day tour of Vermont’s VA medical facilities and face-to-face meetings with Vermont veterans. On April 13, he and Sanders visited the White River Junction VA Medical Center and regional benefits office. Following their UVM visit, they went to the South Burlington Vet Center and met with Vermont veterans at the Burlington Community Based Outpatient Clinic.
UVM President Suresh Garimella and Larner Senior Associate Dean for Medical Education Christa Zehle, M.D., joined Sanders and McDonough for a meeting with six medical student Veterans/Health Professional Scholarship (HPS) recipients prior to the Town Hall.
Class of ‘23 medical student and veteran Justin Schulz is a former U.S. Marine Corps Major who utilized his entitlement to the Post 9/11 GI Bill to further his education after departing active duty for retraining in his civilian specialty choice of medicine.
“I credit the Post 9/11 GI Bill with facilitating my entry into medical education and Vermont – I would not be here without it,” said Schulz. As a recipient of VA benefits and an aspiring VA physician, Schulz was pleased to see VA representatives, including his local primary care physician, as well as Senator Sanders and Secretary McDonough, in Vermont.
A Minnesota native, McDonough was nominated by President Biden and has served in his current role since February 9, 2021. He previously served in the Obama Administration as the 26th White House Chief of Staff, was Principal Deputy National Security Advisor from October 2010 to January 2013, served as the Chief of Staff of the National Security Staff and as the Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications, and chaired the National Security Council’s Deputies Committee.
Of his Vermont host, McDonough said, “There is no bigger champion for Veterans Affairs than Senator Sanders.” He told students that the VA is the largest integrated health care system in the U.S., with 170 hospitals across the country, and a leader in research examining causes and treatment for long COVID.
All of the VA’s more than 1000 clinics, including the Burlington Lakeside Clinic, offer primary and mental health care to veterans. “We are going to get care to vets where they are,” said McDonough, addressing a medical student question about ensuring care access to veterans in rural locations.
One of the VA physician benefits McDonough mentioned was the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, which in return for 10 years of public service forgives physicians’ medical school debt, which can often total more than $200,000.
John Fernan, a Class of ’24 medical student, made a commitment to active duty service in the Navy upon graduation from medical school through the HPS program. “I really wanted to practice medicine with a sense of mission and to be part of that culture of teamwork and respect, which Senator Sanders and Secretary McDonough spoke about,” said Fernan.
Schulz also said “I resonate with Secretary McDonough’s message that ‘the mission matters’ in life.”
Sanders is also the ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee and serves on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
“Thank all of you for going into the medical profession, because you are desperately needed,” said Sanders to the medical students.