The lying and dying at the VA
The nation was shocked by charges that more than 1,400 vets lingered and 40 died on a secret waiting list at the Phoenix, Ariz., Veterans Administration medical center. The list was concocted to conceal long waits for care. But what you haven’t heard is even worse: VA hospitals across America are manipulating the official electronic waiting list, and the deadly coverups have been going on for years.
The dirty tricks at the Phoenix VA came to light on April 24 when retired VA physician Sam Foote exposed how the hospital evaded legal requirements that patients be seen promptly. But Congress has known since the 1990s about vets at many VA facilities waiting hundreds of days for care and sometimes dying in line.
In 1996, Congress passed a law requiring that any vet needing care be seen within 30 days. The General Accountability Office reported in 2000, and again in 2001, that excessive waiting was still a problem. In 2007, and again in 2012, the VA’s own inspector general reported that VA schedulers routinely cheated to hide long waits.
The abuse was vividly documented in a March 2013 hearing of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, more than a year before the Phoenix scandal broke. Debra Draper, the GAO’s director of health care, told Congress that the GAO visited four VA medical sites and found that more than half the schedulers were manipulating the system to conceal how long vets wait to see a doctor. Roscoe Butler, an American Legion investigator, described seeing similar tricks. Asked if the VA could correct the problem, Draper was skeptical.
More investigations and congressional hearings won’t fix this mess. The top three administrators at the Phoenix VA have been put on administrative leave, but punishing only them is like putting a Band-Aid on a gaping wound.
Veterans’ demand for medical care exceeds the VA’s capacity. Again and again, VA bureaucrats have responded to that problem by lying, gaming the electronic-monitoring system and making false promises to the public.
All the while, vets suffer needlessly. On Jan. 30, it was disclosed that at least 19 veterans at VA facilities in Columbia South Carolina and Augusta Georgia died in 2010 and 2011 because they had to wait too long for colonoscopies and endoscopies that could’ve diagnosed their cancers while still treatable.
The practical answer is to provide vouchers or health plans for vets who need colonoscopies, heart care, diabetes management and other treatment for non-combat-related conditions so they can escape the wait lists and use civilian doctors and hospitals.
A bipartisan proposal offered by Reps. Peter King (R-LI) and Steve Israel (D-LI) urges that vets needing mental-health care be referred to civilian caregivers. Every day, 22 veterans kill themselves, many before they manage to get any help from the VA.
Don’t believe the assurances of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki that his department will solve these problems. Look at the VA’s recent announcement about another long wait list, this one for disability claims — where President Obama, in his State of the Union Address in January, pledged that “slashing the backlog” would be a top priority.
The VA announced March 31 that it had cut the disability-claims backlog by 44 percent, from 600,000 to 400,000. But outraged vets say it did that by simply denying many of those applications, moving them into the appeals pile. Don’t count on more truthfulness when it comes to medical wait times.
People in Canada and Britain are all too familiar with long waits for medical care in a government-run system. Their governments publish yearly reports on how long they have to wait to see a doctor, and politicians run for cover when waits grow longer. But most Americans who can’t get a timely appointment with one doctor or hospital have the freedom to call another.
Sadly, veterans are captives of the VA system, enduring the shortcomings of a single-payer system. It’s time to give our vets other options.