Overhauling the VA is the only chance to save it

More than 200,000 U.S. veterans have died waiting for health care through the Veterans Administration (VA), according to new government documents.

Naturally, the federal government has decided to reward the people responsible. This month, a House committee revealed that the Department of Veterans Affairs handed out $142 million in bonuses in 2014, the same year the public learned that veterans on VA waiting lists had died.

The U.S. House of Representatives is now weighing what to do with the department. The answer should be clear. The only way to save the VA is a top-to-bottom overhaul that injects some market forces into the agency’s operations — and empowers veterans to take charge of their care.

For its part, the VA’s leadership rejects the audit’s failing grade. Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald insists that reforms are already underway. The evidence says otherwise.

An October investigation by the agency’s inspector general found that at least five urology patients died while waiting for care from the Phoenix VA. When the hospital’s caseload ballooned in April 2015, it simply cancelled appointments for 3,200 veterans without telling them. Many were for crucial follow-ups for patients with bladder or prostate cancer.

Just last month, CNN reported that many veterans at the Phoenix VA have been forced to wait six months or longer for care, including for potentially life-saving procedures. In August, 8,000 requests for care had wait times exceeding three months. An internal VA memo showed that “wait times are increasing significantly” rather than improving.

In the San Antonio VA network, one in five veterans has to wait 30 days or longer to get an appointment. As of October 1, there were 12,300 patients still trying to see a doctor — a six-fold increase since May.

Meanwhile, a September report showed that the VA office in Seattle lost track of about 1,000 records submitted by veterans. It then wrongly told dozens of them that they were losing their unemployment benefits.

While veterans continue to suffer, VA executives have been busy gaming the agency’s systems for their own benefit. The inspector general’s office discovered that senior officials abused VA reassignment protocols, pushing through questionable moves that increased their own pay while reducing their on-the-job duties. In the past three years, relocation of 23 executives cost taxpayers approximately $1.8 million.

“The immediate challenge at the VA is not just replacing one person, but repairing a broken culture,” Senate Veterans Affairs Committee member Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said recently.

He’s right. The VA’s problems don’t stem from who happens to be in charge; they’re systemic and deep-rooted.

The best way to liberate veterans from the VA’s government-provided, single-payer system would be to institute vouchers that foster competition within the system.

At present, veterans can seek care outside the VA medical system only in very limited circumstances. The lack of choice and competition that results from this government monopoly on health care inevitably results in long waits and substandard care.

A voucher system, on the other hand, would give veterans an immediate path out of deadly long lines. VA vouchers would allow veterans to choose their doctors, clinics and hospitals — and grant them admission to facilities that offer better-quality care and timelier service. They’d also permit vets to avoid the graft and ineptitude that plague the current system.

Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, says that “there is ample evidence that VA does not act quickly enough on accountability … and we will not aid VA in its ‘business as usual’ routine.”

The VA has routinely failed our servicemen and women. Rep. Miller and the rest of the House must seize this occasion to introduce market-based reforms. That’s the only way to ensure that those who have done so much for our country receive the prompt and excellent medical care they deserve.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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