Inquirer Editorial: Toward a healthy VA

Veterans attend a meeting about health-care concerns at an American Legion post in Phoenix this week.
Veterans attend a meeting about health-care concerns at an American Legion post in Phoenix this week. (RALPH FRESO / Associated Press)
Posted: June 12, 2014

The Senate has produced an unusually swift and welcome response to the Department of Veterans Affairs' disgraceful cover-up of its hospitals' failure to treat patients in a timely manner, which may be linked to more than 30 deaths. A bill by Sens. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) and John McCain (R., Ariz.) has broad support and the potential to alleviate some of the department's serious shortcomings.

A retired clinic director recently accused managers of the veterans' hospital in Phoenix of ordering employees to keep a secret waiting list to hide the backlog of patients, some of whom may have died while awaiting care. An audit by the department's inspector general notes that 1,700 veterans were kept on the Phoenix VA Health Care System's unofficial waiting lists. "These veterans were and continue to be at risk of being forgotten or lost in Phoenix HCS's convoluted scheduling process," the report said.

But the problem is systemic. The department disclosed last month that appointment dates had been altered to obscure long waits at more than 60 percent of the facilities it surveyed. Findings made public Monday showed that most new patients at the Philadelphia VA Medical Center face long delays, waiting an average of 43 days for primary care. The hospitals in Philadelphia and Wilmington, where wait times were also long, as well as an outpatient center in Horsham, are among those likely to face further investigation.

The scandal and cover-up, which led to the recent resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, can be blamed partly on the government's failure to properly support veterans' services even though the nation has been at war for more than a decade. But the inspector general also noted internal deficiencies, including VA managers who downplayed wait times as they shamelessly sought salary increases.

The Sanders-McCain bill would allocate $500 million to hire more doctors and nurses to meet the needs of veterans at existing facilities. And it would allow those who don't live near VA hospitals to get care at private facilities that accept Medicare.

Particularly in South Jersey, veterans have long complained that the closest hospitals - in Philadelphia, Wilmington, and central New Jersey - are too far away. Local private treatment should help veterans get care sooner, facilitate family support, and relieve the burden on overtaxed VA facilities.

But privatizing care should be no more than a transitional measure while the department's failures are addressed. And the government will have to keep an eye out for excessive costs or inferior service at private facilities as well.

This legislation is up for debate only because Sanders and McCain, who originally had separate bills, agreed to work together across party lines, having bypassed the usual channels and legislative leaders to make a deal. Those leaders should reflect on the fact that Congress does little of such importance because petty politics too often trumps the public good. This compromise could show the way toward a more productive legislature.

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