The nation was shocked by charges that more than 1,400 vets lingered and 40 died on a secret waiting list at the Phoenix VA medical center. The list was concocted to conceal long waits for care. But what you haven’t heard is even worse. VA hospitals all over the country are manipulating the official electronic waiting list, and the deadly cover-ups have been going on for years.
The dirty tricks at the Phoenix VA came to light on April 24, when retired VA physician Samuel Foote exposed how the hospital evaded legal requirements that patients be seen promptly. But since the 1990s, Congress has known about vets at many VA facilities waiting hundreds of days for care and sometimes dying in line.
In 1996, Congress passed a law requiring that any vet needing care be seen within 30 days. The General Accountability Office, a research service for Congress, reported in 2000 and again in 2001 that excessive waiting was still a problem. In 2007 and again in 2012, the VA’s own inspector general reported that VA schedulers routinely cheated to hide long waits.
The abuse was vividly documented in a hearing before the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs on March 14, 2013, more than a year before the Phoenix scandal broke. Debra A. Draper, director of health care for the GAO, told Congress that her agency had visited four VA medical sites and found that more than half the schedulers were manipulating the system to conceal how long vets have to wait to see a doctor. Roscoe Butler, an American Legion investigator, described seeing similar tricks. When asked whether the VA can correct the problem, Draper was skeptical.
More investigations and congressional hearings will not fix the problem. The top three administrators at the Phoenix VA have been put on administrative leave. But only punishing them is like putting a Band-Aid on a gaping wound. Veterans’ demand for medical care exceeds the VA’s capacity. Again and again, VA bureaucrats have responded to this problem by lying, gaming the electronic monitoring system and making false promises to congressional committees.
All the while vets are suffering needlessly. On Jan. 30, it was disclosed that at least 19 veterans at VA facilities in Columbia, South Carolina, and Augusta, Georgia, died in 2010 and 2011 because they were forced to wait too long for colonoscopies and endoscopies that could have diagnosed their cancers while still treatable
The practical answer is to provide vouchers or health plans for vets who need colonoscopies, heart care, diabetes management and treatment for other non-combat-related conditions so they can escape the watlists and use civilian doctors and hospitals. A bipartisan proposal offered by Congressman Peter King, R-New York, and Steve Israel, D-New York, urges that vets needing mental health care be referred to civilian caregivers. Every day, 22 veterans kill themselves, many before they manage to get any help from the VA.
VA Secretary Eric Shinseki offers assurance that his department will solve these problems. Don’t believe him. Look at the VA’s recent announcement about another long watlist, this one for disability claims. Following President Barack Obama’s 2014 State of the Union pledge that “slashing the backlog” was a top priority, the VA announced on March 31 that it had cut the disability claims backlog by 44 percent, from 600,000 to 400,000. What the VA didn’t admit is that many of those applications were simply denied and moved into the appeals pile, according to outraged vets. Don’t count on more truthfulness when it comes to medical wait times.
Residents of Canada and the United Kingdom are all too familiar with long waits for medical care in a government-run system. Their governments publish yearly reports on how long they have to wait to see a doctor, and politicians run for cover when waits grow longer. But in the U.S., most Americans who can’t get a timely appointment with one doctor or hospital have the freedom to call another. Sadly, veterans are captives of the VA system, enduring the shortcomings of a single-payer system. It’s time to give our vets other options.
Betsy McCaughey is a former lieutenant governor of New York and the author of “Beating Obamacare.”