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Separating myth from fact at the VA

Hardly a day goes by without another headline about problems in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs health-care system and the veterans suffering as a result. But in recent weeks, a number of politicians and journalists have downplayed or even denied the need for reforming the VA, instead accusing those calling for change of “manufacturing or vastly exaggerating” its deficiencies.

These denials fly in the face of everything uncovered in the massive wait-list scandal at the VA nearly two years ago, and the tens of thousands of veterans still waiting months for care.

{mosads}For anyone who thinks these problems aren’t real, consider the story of Barry Coates, a veteran who passed away earlier this year after a long fight with cancer. Barry, a South Carolinian in his mid-40s when he died, testified before Congress in the aftermath of the 2014 scandal, noting that he had waited a full year for the VA to give him a colonoscopy and even had to beg for it to be performed. By the time the VA gave him his appointment, his cancer had already progressed too far.

Unfortunately, Barry’s story is far from the only one. And ignoring stories like his won’t improve veterans’ health and well-being. Veterans deserve an honest assessment of the problems within their VA.

We must first confront the continued excessive wait times for access to health-care. VA staff were encouraged to manipulate the numbers when patients were waiting too long for treatment, hiding these long waits and allowing them to go unchecked. This most infamously occurred in Phoenix, Arizona, where CNN initially reported that at least 40 veterans died while waiting on secret wait lists.  A VA Inspector General’s report later confirmed this, noting that thousands of veterans were at risk.

Far from isolated to Arizona, the VA’s own investigations later revealed these wait lists and excessive delays in treatment were systematic across the nation. The reports produced by these investigations are only now being released, confirming that supervisors and staff at facilities across Texas, Florida, Arkansas, and Delaware—to name a few—falsely indicated that veterans wait times were zero. Worse yet, this practice continued at least as far back as 2007.

This evidence is damning, yet excessive wait times are hardly the only major problem with veterans’ treatment. Stories abound of VA staff behaving unethically or negligently but receiving little disciplinary action. Just this month, for example, two high-level employees demoted for allegedly exploiting the personal relocation system for their own gain were reinstated with full pay. That’s because bureaucracy makes it almost impossible to fire VA employees who’ve committed wrongdoing—at least not in a timely manner or without a protracted battle.

Outside observers have confirmed the decline in VA quality. An independent assessment mandated by Congress, conducted last year by consulting firms including McKinsey and RAND, found that VA hospitals and facilities provide “strikingly different patient experiences, apply inconsistent business processes, and differ widely on key measures of performance and efficiency.”

And if anyone still continues to doubt, they only need to look at the VA’s own data, which show conditions at the VA continue deteriorating.

Troubled VA facilities such as Phoenix still have excessive wait times. Over 8,000 appointments for care in Phoenix have wait times of one month or longer. And it’s even worse in Columbia, South Carolina, where Barry Coates failed to get the care he needed. As of March 1st, over 13 percent of appointments made for care there have one-month wait times, with over 1,000 delayed longer than 120 days.

And the problems are still getting worse. Last year the number of backlogged veterans was 50 percent higher than at the height of the wait-list scandal. And as of this past January, over 30,000 more veterans are waiting longer than one month for health care than were in January 2015.

This is unacceptable, but how do we fix it?  One of the most important changes is ensuring veterans have the freedom to choose how and where they use their health care benefits. That could be accomplished through a strengthened version of 2014’s “Veterans Choice Act

The opponents of VA reform say this is akin to “privatizing” the agency, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s actually like giving veterans a “GI Bill” for their health care. It makes complete sense to take advantage of our country’s well-developed civilian medical infrastructure to supplement veterans’ care when the VA can’t guarantee it.

Those who staunchly defend the VA in light of the indefensible suffering it often causes are putting the federal bureaucracy ahead of the veterans it’s supposed to serve. The VA is a critical institution that serves a noble purpose, but ignoring the need for serious reforms will only hurt more of our nation’s heroes.


Peter Gaytan is the Communications Director at Concerned Veterans for America and has been involved in veterans advocacy for two decades.

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