It takes a special kind of dishonesty to defend the Department of Veterans Affairs’ scandal-plagued health system. Yet that’s exactly what Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., veterans groups, and the Obama administration are doing in response to a modest proposal from the Trump transition team.
A Trump official recently suggested that veterans should have the option of using private-sector doctors and hospitals. Sanders shot back that the incoming administration should “protect the VA, not destroy it.” American Legion Executive Director Verna Jones claimed that “dollar-for-dollar, there is no better care or value available anywhere in the United States — period.”
Such statements are not just ridiculous — they’re antithetical to the interests of our nation’s veterans. For years, the VA’s single-payer health system has subjected veterans to months-long wait times and substandard care.
Exposing the VA health system to market forces — as President-elect Trump seems interested in doing — is a commonsense way to improve the quality of care we provide to our veterans. Defending the status quo, on the other hand, is simply inhumane.
In its current form, the VA health system threatens veterans’ health — and in many cases, their lives. Over 200 veterans died in 2015 while waiting to receive care at a Phoenix VA facility, according to a recent report. Some patients faced wait times as long as six months.
The agency is also beset by rampant corruption. In 2014, for instance, VA auditors discovered that employees at 110 facilities had kept secret waiting lists to hide the severe delays veterans faced when seeking care.
That same year, two high-level officials created higher-paying jobs within the department and promoted themselves into those positions, billing the agency for $400,000 in relocation costs along the way. Instead of giving them the boot, the VA attempted to keep them in their positions.
Sadly, public outcry over the VA’s serial misdeeds hasn’t improved matters for veterans. In November of last year alone, over half a million veterans were asked to wait more than a month to see a doctor.
In a single-payer system like the VA, such widespread corruption and inefficiency is to be expected. So it’s only reasonable that the Trump Administration would seek to introduce some private-sector competition into the program.
What’s truly indefensible are the recent attempts by veterans groups and the Obama administration to defend the VA status quo.
One common argument advanced in favor of the VA’s single-payer model is that the program is uniquely equipped to handle the specific health challenges faced by veterans, including post-traumatic stress disorder.
In reality, the VA has proven shamefully incompetent at looking after the mental health of veterans. More than one-third of veterans who call the agency’s suicide hotline don’t get through to a professional. Instead, they get transferred to employees at backup centers who have far less training in issues specific to veterans.
Just last year, the former director of the VA’s suicide hotline admitted that some workers take fewer than five calls a day and end their shifts early. Such negligence is unforgivable, especially considering that 20 veterans take their own lives every day.
By all accounts, the reform floated by Trump’s team is quite modest. The official merely suggested that some veterans have the choice of seeking care at private health facilities.
The VA already runs a smaller-scale program that allows veterans to see private providers if they are too far away from a VA facility or face wait times longer than 30 days. Last year, there were 25 million appointments at private facilities.
Trump could build on this program with a voucher system that enabled all veterans to seek care from whatever hospitals or doctors they chose. Such a reform would let veterans take control of their health instead of remaining trapped by the VA’s healthcare monopoly.
What’s more, if VA facilities were forced to compete with outside providers, the agency would finally face real pressure to improve the quality and value of their care — and to hold their employees accountable.
Whether or not Trump can follow through on his proposal will depend a great deal on his choice for VA Secretary. For the sake of America’s veterans, let’s hope he chooses a reformer willing to bring some long-needed accountability and competition to the VA’s dysfunctional health system.