As your correspondent understands it, dozens of veterans died while waiting for outpatient appointments at the Phoenix Veterans Administration (VA) Hospital. Approximately 1500 vets were assigned to an “off-the-books” waiting list that made the clinics’ official waiting times appear shorter than they really were.
Because waiting times are an important feature of health care quality, the VA was probably holding its local administrators responsible for routinely measuring and reporting them up the chain of command. If reports are true, instead of using their increased budgetary resources to provide more care, the Phoenix bureaucrats allegedly responded by gaming the system.
And the scandal is flourishing. Investigations suggest other VA hospitals may have also adopted the same wait-list legerdemain. A senior D.C. official resigned fast-tracked his already scheduled retirement. The VA Inspector General’sinvestigation prejudgment is that none of the deaths can be attributed to delays in care. You can’t make this stuff up.
“Good grief!” says your correspondent. Numerous articles like this, this and this had convinced lay writers, impressive policy wonks and countless physicians that this version of government run health care was not only the greatest thing since the invention of Medicare, but a model for U.S. health care reform.
Not any more.
That’s why the implications of this extend far beyond a huge stain on the VA’s reputation. Once again, taxpayers are witnessing another failure of big government. While this has nothing to do with Obamacare, voters have another reason to doubt Washington’s ability to competently deliver on its health care promises.
In the meantime, your correspondent offers the VA plutocrats one approach to figuring out if the waiting lists were associated with higher death rates. It’s possible, thinks this correspondent, to use propensity score matching within the VA’s much-admired electronic health record system to retrospectively create a cohort of patients that were similar in every way except for being on the wait list.
A similar death rate in that group – demonstrated by unbiased scientists outside the control of the VA – would go a long way toward reassuring all of us that this debacle was limited to customer service.
Jaan Sidorov, MD (@DisMgtCareBlog) is a primary care internist and former Medical Director at Geisinger Health Plan with over 20 years experience in primary care, disease management and population-based care coordination. He shares his knowledge and insights at Population Health Blog, where an earlier version of this post first appeared.