Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently offered a vigorous defense of the Veterans Health Administration, arguing that its problems were a “myth” peddled by Republicans who want to privatize the system. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” she said.
One of her fellow Democrats would beg to differ. And he has a relevant perspective, given that he’s actually received care through the VA. “The VA is broken,” Representative Seth Moulton, D-Mass., said in an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper. “When people show up at the VA and they can’t even get seen for months . . . When I get sent home with the wrong medications after having a minor surgery, I mean, that is not a good healthcare system.”
Ocasio-Cortez has no choice but to defend the VA. It’s the brand of socialized medicine she’d like to impose on the entire country. But the VA stands out as a case study in what’s wrong with single-payer healthcare.
The VA has been broken for years. Consider a massive scandal at the Phoenix VA in 2014. Staffers created two lists of veterans: one that included patients who received timely care, and another with patients who had been waiting for months. To avoid criticism, they only shared the former list with Washington officials, and kept the latter list—which had up to 1,600 veterans—secret.
About 40 veterans at the Phoenix VA died waiting for care. Many of them were on the hidden list.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg. That same year in Fort Collins, Colorado, VA employees were instructed to adjust data to hide long wait times. In Jackson, Mississippi, several VA staff members reported that health professionals failed to sterilize equipment properly and diagnose dangerous illnesses. Meanwhile, in Chicago, a VA worker revealed staff changed wait times to keep bonuses.
Lawmakers hypothesized that more taxpayer money would solve these problems. In 2014, Congress pumped an additional $16 billion into the agency.
But things didn’t change. A 2016 report initiated by Congress found that the VA still had major deficiencies in, “staffing, facilities, capital needs, information systems, healthcare disparities, and procurement.”
The scandals have continued. Last year, the VA center in West Haven, Connecticut canceled several scheduled surgeries because equipment wasn’t properly sterilized. The hospital nonetheless got a 5-star quality rating from the VA.
A 2018 audit conducted by the agency’s inspector general unearthed significant amounts of waste, including at least $92 million in overpriced medical supplies. Investigators also found sensitive patient health data sitting in 1,300 unsecured boxes, among numerous other, “serious, persistent deficiencies.”
The VA’s mental health services are a mess, too. For example, up to 40% of calls to the VA’s suicide hotline went unanswered by front-line staffers in May 2016, according to Greg Hughes, the former director of the VA’s Veterans Crisis Line. The calls were transferred to workers with far less training in how to handle veterans’ issues.
Veterans are suffering grievously because of the VA’s mental healthcare shortcomings. According to reporting from Military Times, “The rate of suicide among veterans has remained steady over the last 10 years, with about 20 a day across the country.” Within the last year and a half, 25 veterans have committed suicide in public spaces at VA facilities.
Delays for necessary care are rampant. Nearly one in five new patient appointments takes longer than 30 days to occur, according to a 2018 Inspector General audit. Among this group, the average wait time is 53 days. The report also found that staff members were still masking delays in care—and that, “VA data reliability continues to be a high-risk area.”
It’s challenging for workers to expose abuses. When employees try to blow the whistle, they face a “culture of fear and retaliation,” according to an NPR report. “If you say anything about patient care and the problems, you’re quickly labeled a troublemaker and attacked by a clique that just promotes itself. Your life becomes hell,” said an employee at the Central Alabama Veterans Health Care System.
The Veterans Health Administration proves that the government is incapable of providing high-quality healthcare. We should be looking to extricate patients from the VA by giving them private healthcare choices—not to extend its brand of single-payer failure to the rest of the country.