When you think about the people in this country who deserve top of the line medical care and attention, military veterans likely come to mind. After all, they are the ones who have sacrificed their bodies – frequently putting themselves in harm’s way and laying their bodies on the line – so that this country can continue to operate as a free and prosperous nation.
However, when you look at the state of healthcare in this country – which is pretty poor across the board – it’s evident that veterans are among the least protected groups. The Veterans Administration (VA) is broken and has been neglected by those in power for many years. Reform is needed, but the question is, where do we start?
The Biggest Issues Facing Veterans Health Care
For all of the discussion we have in this country about healthcare reform, insurance coverage, and quality of care, there isn’t nearly enough conversation on how veterans are being treated. If most people were shown the issues and how they’re affecting those who have served to protect our country, they would be shocked.
It would be easy to pull out any one of dozens of different veterans healthcare issues and address the underlying problems, but there are four issues that must be addressed before anything else can be done.
- Delays in Approval
There’s inefficiency at every level of the VA, which undermines almost everything that goes on behind closed doors. The massive number of claims backlogged in the system is the perfect illustration of how broken the system has become.
At one point in 2017, there were 93,000 claims that were waiting longer than 125 days without a decision. (That figure was down significantly from a high of 600,000 in 2013, but is still unacceptable.)
Part of the problem is that the VA still uses paper record keeping and courier/mail services for many of its processes, which, in the age of email and cloud computing, is incredibly archaic.
But it’s not just the VA that’s to blame. For example, something as simple as obtaining a draft copy of the DD-214 – the document veterans need in order to receive healthcare benefits, among other things – is a long and arduous process. Veterans are told to simply log in to the government’s eVetRecs website and request their documents, but the Center admits to receiving thousands of requests per day and tells veterans to expect a wait of three to six months before hearing back. Many veterans end up using independent services like DD-214 Direct to advocate on their behalf and speed up the process.
- Long Wait Times
It’s more than just backlogs on an administrative level. When veterans need to be seen by a doctor, they also face long wait times. During one five-month stretch in 2016, 505,000 veterans seeking medical appointments had to wait longer than a month to see a doctor.
While the VA has implemented a Veterans Choice Program, which allows veterans to see a private physician if they can’t get an appointment through the VA within 30 days, the program has been ineffective, at best. Wait times are still high and the uptick in appointments is placing a burden on an administration that’s already strapped for resources.
- Staff Shortages
While it has received some staff increases over the past few months, the VA is still facing a rather significant shortage of qualified staff. This issue is further irritated by the fact that long hours and incompetence within the VA often leads to high turnover in important positions.
More clinical resources are needed at every level of the VA, but there’s an especially noticeable shortage in psychiatrists and mental health professionals. At a time when PTSD is increasingly common among young veterans, this is a serious problem in need of a long-term fix.
- Lack of Accountability
At the end of the day, it all comes down to leadership. Unfortunately, the VA has been lacking in solid leadership for decades. Until this is fixed, problems will continue to be present.
“The VA should establish a clear line of accountability, provide access to applicable data, and publicly report on all aspects of its health care operations, including quality, safety, patient experience, timeliness, and cost-effectiveness,” health policy expert John O’Shea suggests. “In addition, the VA should have the authority to hire and fire employees in a manner consistent with that in the private sector.”
Will VA Health Care Finally Undergo Reform?
President Donald Trump has been quite verbal about his desire to clean up the VA mess that previous administrations have left behind. In June 2017, he fired 500 misbehaving VA employees, which is a start in the right direction. He’s also been an advocate for reducing suicide rates among veterans, extended the Veterans Choice Program, and emphasized the need for a better budget plan. Only time will tell if lasting reform is possible.
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