President Donald Trump signed the $51 billion VA Mission Act into law this week, a move that not only keeps the VA’s troubled Choice private-sector program alive for a year, but in theory replaces it with a more responsive program that allows veterans to get care outside of the VA when faced with lengthy wait times or a lack of services they need.
Given the VA scandals of recent years, with scheduling cover-ups and patients dying before they could be seen by a provider, it is far past the time to get the men and women who have served our country the medical treatment they deserve. The key will be ensuring this system actually works better than those that have preceded it, and in concert with the VA system, not in lieu of it.
Critics say the bill moves the VA too far in the direction of privatization. And it’s true that as the VA Mission Act becomes law, the VA system is being starved of resources – more than 30,000 positions are vacant. But it’s also true the VA Choice private-sector option hasn’t turned out to be much of an alternative. Wait times under the program – the purported 2014 fix to those wait-time scandals that actually includes competing outside care programs – aren’t much better than the traditional VA. According to a Government Accountability Office report cited in the Military Times this week, “patients using the Veterans Affairs Choice program to avoid long wait times at department medical centers may still face monthslong delays before seeing a doctor.”
The GAO report says Choice participants can wait up to 70 days to get care because of bureaucratic red tape. The average wait in 2016 for Choice participants was 51 days – almost two months. That begs the question, was the cure worse than the disease? And why would we believe this second prescription will be any better?
The GAO report recommends setting achievable wait-time goals and implementing a mechanism so time frames can be modified only by a clinician – sounds like the recommendations that got us VA Choice.
America’s veterans deserve better. All five members of New Mexico’s Congressional delegation voted for the VA Mission Act and New Mexico, with three Air Force bases, an Army missile range, three national labs and numerous military retirees, is relying on them to ensure accountability mechanisms are in place so the VA, as well as the VA Mission Act, deliver better options for our veterans, not just more of the bad ones they already have.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.