Feds, VA have to find new way of operating

We’ve heard and seen it all before.

But until Congress and the White House agree to a new way to provide medical care to the nation’s military veterans, there is little reason to think the latest deal — cooked up under the pressure of lawmakers itching to go on vacation — will serve us any better than the current broken system.

Lawmakers this week cobbled together a bipartisan deal that would authorize about $17 billion to help veterans avoid long waits, hire more doctors and nurses and make it easier to fire executives at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Perhaps the encouraging news is that $10 billion of the $17 billion total is to allow veterans to seek outside care at hospitals in their hometowns, a move that could be a first step to better utilize the nation’s existing health care industry to care for veterans.

While turning to the private sector wouldn’t be a panacea, it would resolve many of the issues of time and distance that have plagued the VA system since its inception.

One of the major elements of the latest scandal to rock the VA is the apparent practice of faking records to make it look as though the long waits for care most vets encounter were shorter than they actually were.

There are estimates that as many as 1,000 veterans died waiting for care in the last few years. Although dying while waiting for care is not unique to the VA, faking records to hide that fact is reprehensible.

So letting vets go to their local hospital or their own doctor for care instead of getting on a long waiting list at a facility sometimes a couple hundred miles away certainly has its benefits.

And miles are as much a factor as time. The grind of traveling long distances for treatment wears on veterans and their families and costs them money many can’t afford.

The $17 billion breaks down into three major areas:
• About $2 billion to lease 27 new medical facilities. While 27 new clinics is better than none, it’s not by much. That’s one new clinic each for just 27 states out of 50, a laughable number.

• $5 billion for hiring doctors and nurses and some construction. The 130-page bill increases incentives for young doctors to work at the VA by doubling the amount of their student loans the agency can repay per year.

• And $10 billion to allow veterans to seek outside care if they wait longer than 30 days for an appointment or live more than 40 miles away from a VA hospital.

In northern Michigan — and more so in the Upper Peninsula —v it’s likely the vast majority of vets don’t live within 40 miles of a VA facility, but they likely live within 40 miles of a hospital.

In a July 1 letter, former Munson Medical Center president and chief executive officer Ralph Cerny wrote that veterans “should be able to see any health care provider they want to see wherever that provider is located, not just those employed by the government.”

He called for the VA’s health care delivery system to be disbanded and converted into a government-funded insurance program for veterans.

That’s not a new idea; and we can’t forget that the nation’s private health industry has its own demons. But the existing VA system is so dysfunctional we must seek new options.

Veterans deserve first-class medical care in a responsive and respectful system. Spending more money to do essentially the same thing over and over serves no one.