Ending long waits for VA care needs united action

May 22, 2014 

The controversy over extended wait times for care in the Department of Veterans Affairs health care system is producing two revelations.

The first is that ailing veterans whose numbers have soared since the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are having trouble getting treatment in a timely manner. The VA standard is that patients receive care within 14 to 30 days, but some have waited for months before getting care. In Phoenix, as many as 40 patients have died during those extended waits.

The second revelation is that care at VA hospitals, once delivered, receives high ratings from patients, according the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI), an independent customer service survey. In the 2013 survey veterans strongly endorsed VA health care, with 91 percent offering positive assessments of inpatient care and 92 percent for outpatient care. Such ratings, equal or ahead of private hospitals, are remarkable given the high demands on VA medical personnel and their relatively low pay.

Reports that veterans faced long wait times at the Phoenix VA hospital and employees destroyed evidence of those lists are being fanned into a “scandal” by some lawmakers and are drawing criticism from Republicans and Democrats alike. With that has come the call for the resignation VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, a call President Obama has sensibly declined to follow until all the facts are in.

What we know is that the nation’s more than 1,700 VA hospitals are swamped and more are under construction. VA funding has increased, but it has not kept pace with demand that now stands at 5.75 million veteran patients. The VA is a huge bureaucracy with more than 270,000 employees that is slowed by red tape and a lack of accountability among top managers. Problems related to the bureaucracy are hardly new, but it’s time to find solutions that will last past the crisis of the moment

What is needed is a show of the same patriotic commitments critics cite when they condemn VA’s management. Congress and the Obama Administration should commit to full funding of the VA health care system and an overhaul of the bureaucratic bloat that inhibits its efficient function.

The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America said as much when the group rejected calls for symbolic resignations and firings and asked instead for a level of responsiveness that goes deeper then the symbolic.

“We don't need the VA to find a scapegoat; we need an actual plan to restore a culture of accountability throughout the VA,” the veterans group said.

Shinseki, a retired four-star U.S. Army general who lost most of his right foot fighting in Vietnam, is still the right man to lead reform of the VA. He knows the system’s problems and he knows its patients’ pain.

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