The latest scandal in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs isn’t about quality of health care, but rather about veterans’ being unable to get care when they need it.
Perhaps someone other than Eric Shinseki, a retired four-star general, would do a better job of improving access. But regardless of who is VA secretary, the department will need better resources to meet skyrocketing demand for services from the burgeoning ranks of U.S. veterans.
Nationwide, VA operates about 1,700 health care sites, including 152 hospitals, 900 community-based clinics and 300 Vet Centers and serves more than 6 million veterans annually.
Every year, U.S. veteran organizations prepare an “independent budget” in which they recommend VA funding levels to Congress and the president. Yes, VA appropriations have increased. However, the number of veterans seeking care and the severity of their health problems has increased faster than the money.
13 years of war
This is the result of 13 years of unending war. More military veterans, more who have seen combat, more who have been wounded visibly and invisibly, more who are disabled because they answered their country’s call to serve.
Consider VA Montana: The health care system has increased the number of outreach clinics to 12, extended a telemedicine network, added inpatient behavioral health facilities in Helena and recently opened a major clinic expansion in Billings. However, the system’s ability to recruit and retain health care professionals lags behind the facility improvements.
A VA inspector general’s report released last week found that VA Montana scored high in patient satisfaction and call responsiveness. However, it ranked among the worst VA systems for long patient waiting times and high employee turnover. Montana veterans have nearly the longest wait times for specialty care, primary care and mental health.
As reported May 23 in The Gazette, audits dating back to 2005 have documented problems with VA health care wait times and scheduling nationwide.
After President Barack Obama promised last week to get the facts on allegations of falsified wait lists at two dozen VA facilities and to hold those responsible accountable, the Disabled American Veterans pointed out that investigating and firing won’t be enough.
“Resources is an issue that needs to be taken into account,” said Gary Augustine, DAV executive director. “Congress has some blame to share in this fiasco. Over the past 10 years, the VA has received $7.8 billion in appropriations less than we have called for in the Independent Budget.”
Fund veterans first
Augustine also renewed a call for Congress to pass legislation that appropriates all VA funding a year in advance, so the annual budget delays from partisan gridlock won’t hold up compensation and health care benefits veterans have earned. The Putting Veterans First Act, (S.932, HR813) passed the respective veterans affairs committees with bipartisan support, but it hasn’t been taken to the floor of either chamber. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., is one of seven cosponsors on the Senate bill.
“If you don’t have enough doctors, or enough space, or the separate funding required to purchase care outside VA, then there is no alternative to forcing veterans to wait for care, and that is simply unacceptable,” Augustine told a Senate committee on May 15.
Last week, Obama threatened to veto this year’s military spending bill if it included $50 billion in appropriations that the Pentagon had proposed cutting. What’s wrong with this picture? Some members of Congress are willing to spend more than the Pentagon asked for and to stop the closing of bases that the military doesn’t need, yet American veterans wait weeks or months to see a doctor.
America first owes a debt to those who have served. Congress and the White House must agree on funding the VA health care system to meet the needs of U.S. veterans for timely, quality care.