The Veterans Affairs (VA) hospital scandal has policymakers calling for VA Secretary Eric Shinseki’s head, and this week they got it, when President Obama accepted the Secretary’s resignation.
Some policymakers are also calling for privatizing VA hospitals, allowing them to be owned and operated by the same entities that own and operate the hospitals the rest of us use. This idea assumes the hospital community as a whole performs better than the VA, and the sad truth is we don’t have any evidence of that.
We know that on average, other hospitals are not doing a great job. Upwards of 500 people each day die from preventable errors in American hospitals, one in 20 admitted patients will get an infection, and one in four inpatients suffer some form of harm unrelated to the reason they went to the hospital in the first place.
Evidence suggests waiting lists like the VA’s may be common, as well.
So how does the VA compare? We don’t know. We don’t have much data publicly available to begin with, and we have virtually nothing that compares VA hospitals with other American hospitals.
To be clear, data is being collected—it’s just not typically available to humble souls like you and me and the rest of the American citizenry. Hospitals get accredited to receive Medicare and Medicaid payments, but accreditation reports are not made public by hospital. Health plans collect claims data, but most of that is never released to the public. The Centers for Disease Control, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and other federal agencies collect reams of data, but much of it is not made public, either.
This dearth of information is why employers and other purchasers of health care formed my organization (The Leapfrog Group), to ask hospitals to report on data they can’t get anywhere else. Their support means it’s free for hospitals to publicly report and free for consumers to access information about hospitals in their community. But only about a third of hospitals participate.
In a post on the New York Times’ Economix blog not long ago, Princeton economics professor Uwe E. Reinhardt addresses the common characterization of the British health care system as “socialized medicine.” The label is most often used pejoratively in the United States to suggest that if anything resembling Great Britain’s National Health System (NHS) were adopted in the U.S., it would invariably deliver low-quality health care and produce poor health outcomes.
Ironically, Reinhardt notes, the U.S. already has a close cousin to the NHS within our borders. It’s the national network of VA Hospitals, clinics and skilled nursing facilities operated by our Veterans Healthcare Administration, part of the Department of Veterans Affairs. By almost every measure, the VA is recognized as delivering consistently high-quality care to its patients.
Among the evidence Reinhardt cites is an “eye-opening” (his words) 2004 RAND study from in the Annals of Internal Medicine that examined the quality of VA care, comparing the medical records of VA patients with a national sample and evaluating how effectively health care is delivered to each group (see a summary of that study).
RAND’s study, led by Dr. Steven Asch, found that the VA system delivered higher-quality care than the national sample of private hospitals on all measures except acute care (on which the two samples performed comparably). In nearly every other respect, VA patients received consistently better care across the board, including screening, diagnosis, treatment, and access to follow-up.
Last Wednesday, President Obama called the much-publicized problems in the Veterans Affairs health system “disgraceful” as delays in care in at least 26 facilities grabbed media attention. In testimony before Senate and House Congressional committees, VA officials disclosed systemic misrepresentations about the timeliness of treatments in VA primary care clinics: rather than getting care within 14 days of request, many veterans appear to have waited 6-12 months to see a doctor, and some are alleged to have died while waiting.
In referencing a special report due this week that assesses the scope of the problem in the Department of Veterans Affairs, the President’s commitment to fix the problem was unequivocal: “I want to see what the results of these reports are and there is going to be accountability.”
As I have watched the VA storyline play out over the course of the past few weeks, I found myself asking questions the reporters weren’t:
Why do we need to operate a separate system of 820 clinics and 151 hospitals for Veterans?
Might the system of care for the 21 million it currently serves not be better coordinated through the U.S. health care system of 5200 public and private hospitals, 820,000 physicians, 1200 federally qualified health centers, 2000 community mental health clinics, 56,000 pharmacies and 1700 retail clinics? In most communities, there’s a surplus of beds.
In most communities, those with insurance can get doctors’ appointments and receive treatment. Veterans who lack private coverage, like those who are uninsured, have fewer choices. It is not a capacity issue: it is an economic issue.
And common sense suggests we might redeploy some the VA health administration’s $60.3B budget for better coordination with the private systems that already operate in our communities while reducing duplication of services and their associated costs.
Why don’t we get serious and fix the problem of access to primary care shortage once and for all? It’s not just a veterans’ problem. Those who live in poorer neighborhoods lack access.
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s long-awaited (in health IT circles, anyway) decision on the Department of Defense’s core health IT system has been made. The VA’s VistA system is out as the preferred DoD. Unless it’s not.
In his May 21 memo, Hagel directed the DoD to initiate a competitive process for a commercially available electronic health record (EHR) solution. Understandably, the secretary has to create a level playing field, a competitive process, so he can tell Congress with certainty that due diligence was done. Hate it a lot or hate it a little, this is the nature of our political process.
Already, many are spinning Hagel’s decision as a huge win for proprietary solutions; popular blogger Mr. HIStalk has already established Epic as the frontrunner in the upcoming DoD derby.
But before we simply anoint Judy Faulkner the queen of American health IT, I want, as the Brits say, to throw a spanner in the works.
Commercial ≠ Proprietary
A careful review of the Hagel memo and other recent statements from his top lieutenants reveal a more progressive vision and clear requirements for an open architecture and service model.
From the Hagel memo:
I am convinced that a competitive process is the optimal way to ensure we select the best value solution for DoD … A competitive process will allow DoD to consider commercial alternatives that may offer reduced cost, reduced schedule and technical risk, and access to increased current capability and future growth in capability by leveraging ongoing advances in the commercial marketplace … Also, based on DoD’s market research, a VistA-based solution will likely be part of one or more competitive offerings that DoD receives.
To sum up, the secretary has directed the DoD to go commercial instead of developing and maintaining their own VistA-based solution, but commercialized VistA-based solutions will be included in the competitive process.
In these politically polarized times, Americans expect Republicans and Democrats to disagree on every detail right down to what day of the week it is. This is especially true in the posturing hurly-burly of the House, where members can appeal to the few select priorities of a gerrymandered district to win re-election.
So it’s remarkable and unexpected when any legislation exits a House committee with unanimous bipartisan support. It’s even more surprising when the legislation potentially threatens the status quo for established corporate interests—in this case information technology companies.
The Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act (FITAR)—sponsored by California Republican Darrell Issa along with Virginia Democrat Gerry Connolly, and supported by every member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee—threatens to put open-source software on par with proprietary by labeling it a “commercial item” in federal procurement policies. The proposal wouldn’t give open source a privileged position, just an equal one.
After a decade of conflict in Iraq, our troops have come home, producing the largest increase in the number of American veterans since the 1970s. After Vietnam, an America tired of war and consumed with political angst neglected its veterans. Fortunately, the veterans of today are receiving the homecoming they deserve. To make that homecoming complete, America needs to ensure that our returning warriors have access to one of the most important benefits they have earned: health care provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
A Health Care Challenge: Fewer Battlefield Deaths, More Injuries
The United States military is the most technologically sophisticated fighting force in the world. This technological advantage means that our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan are subject to fewer casualties than in Vietnam. But those who do receive injuries are significantly more likely to survive because of body armor and the high quality of medical care. According to a study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania, only 13 percent of those injured in Iraq were likely to die compared to those injured in Vietnam, where the fatality rate was nearly 25 percent. But our ability to save lives also means that many more veterans are returning home after losing limbs or suffering from the after-effects of traumatic brain injuries (TBI) from blasts experienced in battle or as a result of improvised explosive devices.
A frightening aspect of TBI is that it can be quite difficult to diagnose. It is possible for someone exposed to an explosion to show no signs of injury until weeks or months later when symptoms—such as depression, anxiety or anger issues—become apparent. Untreated, these symptoms can lead to major depression, substance use problems, unemployment and ruined family relationships. In addition to TBI, other problems—from back injuries to exposure to toxins—may only become apparent after the veteran has been separated from service for months or even years.
In Doctors, Patients & Social Media, dated September 2011, QuantiaMD and the Care Continuum Alliance report a high level of physician engagement with online networks and social media. Two-thirds of physicians are using social media for professional purposes, and see potential in the use of these channels to facilitate patient-physician communication. The survey found a cadre of “Connected Clinicians” who use multiple media sites to positively impact patient care. Over 20% of clinicians use 2 or more sites.
Only 1 in 10 physicians is familiar with one or more online patient communities, as the first chart illustrates. Among those who know about at least one community, a majority believe the sites have a positive impact on patients (either very positive or positive in the survey response). This is true across various condition categories, especially for rare diseases, cancers, chronic conditions, maternal and child health, and wellness/prevention. As one physician shared anecdotally, “Patients can share their stories, learn from others, spread knowledge, and instill hope.”
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.”
By MAGGIE MAHAR
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.