In a White House ceremony earlier this week, President Joe Biden signed nine bills aimed at improving healthcare for American veterans — a task he referred to as a “sacred obligation.”
Among them were bills expanding access to mammograms for veterans exposed to toxic burn pits and extending a federal program that compensates veterans who developed cancer after working on the World War II-era nuclear program.
Unfortunately, none addresses the far larger problems that continue to plague the Veterans Health Administration. For decades, the U.S. government has subjected veterans to poor care and life-threatening delays.
And as two new reports from the Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General make clear, recent efforts to improve conditions at VA health facilities — and root out fraud and abuse — have been woefully ineffective.
The president is right that we have a sacred obligation to look after those among us who risked their lives for our nation’s security. But the only way to fulfill that obligation is to free them from a government-run healthcare system that continues to fail them.
It was more than eight years ago that a scandal at a veterans hospital in Phoenix shed light on widespread suffering within the VA. As several investigations confirmed, officials at the hospital deliberately misreported patient wait times to federal regulators, even as dozens of patients died waiting for care.
The story sparked national outrage and led to numerous federal initiatives designed to reduce wait times and promote transparency at the VA.
Sadly, things haven’t changed, according to an April OIG report. The audit found that VA facilities continue to report wait time data inconsistently and inaccurately, often hiding the true extent of the treatment delays our veterans face.
This is despite Congress creating two separate online reporting systems for patient wait times.
The problem stems from the fact that wait times are calculated differently depending on which online system a facility uses.
And while this might seem like little more than a clerical oversight, the consequences for patients can be dire, even fatal.
Thanks to a 2019 law known as the Mission Act, veterans now have the freedom to seek care outside the VA system in cases where wait times are too long. The Mission Act is far from perfect, and much more needs to be done to improve access to non-VA care for former service members. Indeed, there are countless reports of patients facing significant bureaucratic barriers to getting care outside the VA system, even since the bill’s passage.
But for the Mission Act to work even in theory, accurate wait-time reporting is essential. And the VA hasn’t been up to the job. The agency has known about the wait-time reporting glitch since at least 2019, the OIG report notes. Yet it hasn’t been fixed.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. Fraud, waste, abuse, and inefficiency are the natural byproducts of massive, government-run healthcare bureaucracies — as evidenced by Medicaid in the United States and numerous single-payer systems abroad. The VA is no different.
Just look at last month’s semiannual report to Congress from the agency’s OIG. In the last six months alone, the report finds, wrongdoing at the VA led to 104 arrests, 94 convictions, and more than 550 administrative sanctions.
Veterans have risked their lives defending our country. The very least our government can do is provide them with access to timely, high-quality medical care — the kind of care the VA healthcare bureaucracy has proved it can’t consistently provide.
If our government isn’t up to the task, then it’s high time that veterans be given vouchers to seek the care they need in the private sector.