POLICY: In Defense of the VA System

Like fellow contributor Eric Novack, THCB alum Maggie Mahar has been following the Walter Reed story closely.  Maggie doesn’t buy the criticism that the problems at the facility are due to the fact that Walter Reed is a government run hospital. She’s  also unhappy about the fact that critics are using the occasion to target the VA system in general. Maggie is the author of the critically acclaimed “Money Driven Medicine: The Real Reason Health Care Costs so Much.”

Too many news reports about the scandal at Walter Reed use the story to malign the VA hospital system–and to suggest that when government gets involved in health care, the result is disaster.

First, Walter Reed is not part of the Veterans Administration Health Care System. It is a U.S. Army Medical Center.Secondly, while not every VA hospital is perfect, overall,  the VA is one of the very best  health care systems in the U.S.–thanks to a major overhaul by undersecretary of health Kenneth Kizer in the 1990s. Its electronic medical system has done an extraordinary job of co-ordinating care and all but eliminating medication errors.

As Business Week reported last year (July 17th, 2006) , “if you want to be sure of top-notch care, join the military. The 154 hospitals and 875 clinics run by the Veterans Affairs Dept. have been ranked best-in-class by a number of independent groups on a broad range of measures, from chronic care to heart disease treatments to the percentage of members who receive flu shots. It offers all the same services, and sometimes more, than private sector providers.”

A string of studies published in published in medical jouranls back up these claims.  For  the full story of the VA’s transformation. see Philip Longman’s “The Best Care Anywhere” in Washington Monthly, January 2007.

That said, the Bush administration has steadily cut funding for the VA hospital system, and as a result, access and waiting times have suffered. By 2005 the number of patients the Veterans Administration was treating had doubled over 10 years to roughly 7 million. Meanwhile, the VA had cut costs by half. Such efficiency is admirable– but at that  point, the budget was too tight.

And that was 2005. As the war in Iraq dragged on, the number of wounded multiplied.

Yet just as this administration failed to provide fighting soliders with the armor they needed, it has failed to give the VA the resources it needed to keep up with the carnage.