Poll: Confidence in veterans’ care plummets to new low
By Susan Page
USA TODAY, June 2, 2014
Americans’ confidence in the medical care provided for soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan has plummeted to new lows in the wake of the VA scandal, a USA TODAY Poll finds. Most people see the problem as widespread and systemic.
Just one in five rate the job the government does in providing veterans with medical care as excellent or good, about half the percentage who said that in a Pew Research Center survey in 2011. Then, half rated the care as “only fair” or poor; now seven in 10 do.
42% have little or no confidence that the problems can be fixed.
Eight in 10 worry that the issue is turning into a political battle in which Democrats and Republicans are more interested in scoring points than solving the issue. On that question, there is almost no difference by party affiliation.
VA Care: Still the Best Care Anywhere?
By Phillip Longman
Washington Monthly, June 3, 2014
Last week, when I accepted an invitation to go on Hugh Hewitt’s nationally syndicated talk show, his first question to me was, “So how does it feel to be the author of a book about the VA that has been thoroughly discredited?”
Well, yes, as the author of the title Best Care Anywhere, Why VA Health Care would be Better for Everyone, it’s been dispiriting to have it confirmed by a preliminary inspector general’s report that some frontline VA employees in Phoenix and elsewhere have been gaming a key performance metric regarding wait times. But what’s really has me enervated is how the dominate media narrative of the VA “scandal” has become so essentially misleading and damaging to the cause of health care delivery system reform.
I don’t mean just the fulminations of the right wing press. It’s nothing new when Fox rolls out Ollie North to proclaim that any real or reported failure of the VA is proof of the case against socialized medicine.
I’m also talking about the work of hard-working and earnest reporters, who due to a combination insufficient background knowledge and the conventions of Washington scandal coverage, wind up giving the public a fundamentally false idea of how well the VA is performing as an institution. Over the next several days, I plan to make a series of posts here at Political Animal that I hope will be helpful to those covering the story, or for those who are just trying to get the full context for forming an opinion.
Today, let’s just start by scrutinizing the now almost universal assumption that there is a “systemic” problem at VA hospitals with excessive wait times. Even progressives, including the likes of Jon Stewart and Bill Maher, seem predisposed to believe this for their different reasons. Some voices, like my former colleague Brian Beutler of The New Republic, even speculate that the scandal may ultimately bounce in a way that harms the Republicans more than it does the Democrats.
But before we go there, can we get clear on just what the underlying reality is? There is, to be sure, a systemic backlog of vets of all ages trying to establish eligibility for VA health care. This is due to absurd laws passed by Congress, which reflect on all us, that make veterans essentially prove that they are “worthy” of VA treatment (about which more later). But this backlog often gets confused with the entirely separate issue of whether those who get into system face wait times that are longer than what Americans enrolled in non-VA health care plans generally must endure.
Just what do we know about how crowded VA hospitals are generally? Here’s a key relevant fact that is just the opposite of what most people think. For all the wars we’ve been fighting, the veterans population has been falling sharply (pdf). Nationwide, their number fell by 17 percent between 2000 and 2014, primarily due to the passing of the huge cohorts of World War II- and Korea War-era vets. The decline has been particularly steep in California and throughout much of New England, the Mid-Atlantic and industrial Midwest, where the fall off has ranged between 21 percent and 36.7 percent.
Reflecting this decline, as well a general trend toward more outpatient services, many VA hospitals in these areas, including flagship facilities, want for nothing except sufficient numbers of patients to maintain their long-term viability. I have visited VA hospitals around the county and often been unnerved by how empty they are. When I visited two of the VA’s four state-of-the-art, breathtakingly advanced polytrauma units, in Palo Alto and Minneapolis, there was hardly a patient to be found.
But at the same time there is a comparatively small countertrend that results from large migrations of aging veterans from the Rust Belt and California to lower-cost retirement centers in the Sun Belt. And this flow, combined with more liberal eligibility standards that allow more Vietnam vets to receive VA treatment for such chronic conditions as ischemic heart disease and Parkinson’s, means that in some of these areas, such as, Phoenix, VA capacity is indeed under significant strain.
This regional imbalance in capacity relatively to demand makes it very difficult to manage the VA with system-wide performance metrics. Setting a benchmark of 14 days to see a new primary care doc at a VA hospital or clinic in Boston or Northern California may be completely reasonable. But trying to do the same in Phoenix and in a handful of other sunbelt retirement meccas is not workable without Congress ponying up for building more capacity there.
Once you have this background, it becomes easy to understand certain anomalies in this scandal. If care is really so bad, for example, why did all the major veterans services remain unanimous in recent testimony before Congress in their long-stranding praise for the quality of VA health care? And why have they remained stalwart in defending the VA against its many ideological enemies who want to see it privatized? It’s because, by and large, VA care is as good, if not better than what vets can find outside the system, including by such metrics as wait times.
Similarly, if VA care were not generally very good, the VA would not continue to rank extraordinarily high in independent surveys of patient satisfaction. Recently discharged VA hospital patients for example, rate their experience 4 points higher than the average (pdf) for the health care industry as a whole. Fully 96 percent say they would turn to VA inpatient care again.
Now if you go out looking for vets who say they have been victimized by the VA, you will have no trouble finding them, and many will be justified in their complaints. But as I’ll argue further in future posts, the key question to ask when confronting the real deficiencies of the VA is “compared to what?” Once that context is established, it becomes clear that VA as a whole continues to outperform the rest of the American health system, making its true lessons extremely important to learn.
Phillip Longman is senior editor of the Washington Monthly.
By Don McCanne, MD
Phillip Longman, as the author of “Best Care Anywhere, Why VA Health Care would be Better for Everyone,” is a person to whom we can turn to get the full story on the VA health care “scandal” and how representative it is of the system at large. According to him it is not only the right wing attacks claiming that this is proof of the case against socialized medicine, but it is also “hard-working and earnest reporters” who “wind up giving the public a fundamentally false idea of how well the VA is performing as an institution.”
The new USA Today poll confirms that the reporting has caused Americans’ confidence in the VA health system to plummet, with the perception that the problem is widespread and systemic. Americans do recognize that the politicians are more interested in scoring points than they are in solving the issues (Sen. Bernie Sanders being a notable exception). Nevertheless, the poll indicates that they now believe that the government is doing a poor job and 42% have little or no confidence that they can fix the problems.
Longman states, “it becomes clear that VA as a whole continues to outperform the rest of the American health system, making its true lessons extremely important to learn.” When individuals make the claim that the VA “scandal” proves that single payer would not work in the United States, refer them to this series being written by Phillip Longman where they can learn the truth.