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.