We have been covering the crisis involving the Veterans Affairs health care system for weeks now. On Thursday, June 12, 2014, Congress held another hearing on the problems and what can be done about them. Veterans have been subjected to long waits for medical care that have resulted in both delayed diagnoses of medical conditions and in deaths. CNN reports that tens of thousands of newly returned veterans are waiting 90 days or longer before they receive care. The VA officially acknowledges that twenty-three people have died due to these problems, but CNN has found dozens of others who died waiting for medical care in Phoenix.
The reasons proffered for the problem during the hearing are not terribly complicated. First, the number of veterans needing care has increased dramatically due to prolonged wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The second reason, however, is much more sinister. The VA’s bonus system for managers rewarded them for meeting goals regarding access to treatment. This seems reasonable, in that it should encourage innovation and faster treatment. But in practice it resulted in fake waiting lists and other manipulations of the waiting list system. It’s like a parent telling a child that she will give him five dollars for every “A” on his report card. In theory, it should lead to good grades. But what happened here is that the child decided he just didn’t have what it takes to get the As, so he forged his report card to get the cash anyway.
The federal government has taken some action to address these very serious issues. CNN reports that the FBI has opened a criminal investigation of the matter. The investigators are working out of Phoenix, and are working with federal prosecutors to determine what, if any, criminal charges may be pursued. Additionally, both the House and Senate have passed legislation that would allow veterans to seek medical care outside the VA system and be reimbursed if they are facing long wait times. This is an important step, but it is only a band aid that does not address the underlying problems within the VA system. And it certainly does not provide any redress for the veterans and family members who have already been irreparably harmed by the delays.
CBS reports that the Senate’s bill also takes steps to improve the care provided by the VA itself. If passed, it would authorize the VA to lease 26 new health facilities and spend $500 million to hire more doctors and nurses. The House bill does not include a specific dollar amount like the senate bill, but it would eliminate the bonuses that have contributed to the problem, freeing up $400 million a year that could be used for expanded care. The bills both allow veterans facing long delays or who live long distances from VA facilities to seek outside treatment, but that allowance will only last for two years.