Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The VA: The Systemic Shame Continues

"If the government can't even treat it's veterans properly, how can it handle health care for everyone?"...NY Post editorial

Before I begin, I need to make one point very clear. In my experience with VA providers, they have been very good with only a few exceptions. But wait times and communicating by phone have been horrific.

Allow me to give you some personnel anecdotal examples.

Several weeks ago, I called the VA to make a follow-up appointment. On two occasions, I was on hold or the phone was ringing for over 15 minutes with no answer. Most mornings I walk to a local diner for breakfast.  It's a 1.5M walk one way. When I left the diner, I called the VA. The phone rang during my entire walk. On another occasion, after holding for over 10 minutes, the call was dropped by the VA. 

But the phone calls are just one example of a larger systemic problem. The other includes wait times---wait times to get an appointment and wait times at the appointment. On two occasions in the last 4 months, I didn't get to see my provider until 5-6 hours after the scheduled appointment time.

A little more than 15 months ago, news began filtering out to the public regarding the problems at the VA. Most have been specific to delayed care  as well as some conspicuous incompetence and wasteful spending. For example, Betsy MCaughey of the Lincoln Center for Policy Research recently reported that over 35,000 combat veterans---who are automatically eligible for VA health care---"are stuck on hold because the enrollment process is broken beyond belief." If you recall, when the VA scandal broke, it was reported that wait times for many vets was 360 days. This was up from 110 days in 2008. 

After these scandals were reported, one would believe things should have improved. It appears many have not. Just this week, USA Today reported veterans seeking health care but ending up on waiting lists of one month or more increased by 50% OVER A YEAR AGO. In addition, this past summer, a whistle blower claimed the VA purposely delayed action on benefit applications for 34,000 Afghanistan and Iraq war veterans. And if that's not disturbing enough, CNN reported the Inspector General of the VA found that 307,000 veterans died before their applications were processed. McCaughey also reported that 110 VA facilities were implicated in manipulating waiting lists. Yet, very few VA employees responsible were fired. There are also other reports of the VA's "wanton and abusive spending practices." {Concerned Veterans}

When I wrote about this problem a year ago, one of the suggestions was to allow veterans to use outside providers especially those veterans who reside hours from their nearest VA facility. Since that time, Congress created the Choice program allowing veterans to do just that. But there's one major obstacle: 54% of veterans still haven't even heard of the program. {NY Post}

The fact is many solutions have been suggested. For example, a proposal in Congress---The Veterans Independence Act---would include private coverage options and a total restructuring of the VA medical system.

While many veterans want to preserve the current system, a majority of veterans (in recent polls) want options and more choices including private medical facilities and physicians. But the last thing we need is to continue with this failed socialized system of medical care as well as stale, empty rhetoric. It's beyond time for some action. Far too many veterans have died just trying to navigate this inefficient and inadequate system of health care.

Postscript: So I went to the VA to see if my appointment---3 weeks from today---could be moved up. They said the medical staff would review my file and call me back at a later time. As  was leaving the city a 1/2 later while on the train, I received a call to call another number. I called that extension at least 10 times and each message was "that number is busy."  When I tried another line to the clinic, no one answered. Finally, when I got someone, the office closed at 4:30 p.m.  Total time calling those numbers: at least 45 minutes or as long as the train ride home. Can't make this stuff up. 

Sidebar: News broke recently that the VA in Palto Alto spent $6.1M on art, sculptures and fountains.