Just a few days after Memorial Day, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs eased a rule that allows VA patients to seek medical care from private providers. The goal: Decrease the wait time for medical attention.
Under the previous policy, veterans who faced waits of 30 days or more for an appointment could go outside the system and take their V.A. coverage with them. That window narrowed to 20 days this summer, and the end goal is 14 days by 2020.
Veterans Day is Monday. That means in eight weeks more veterans theoretically might have access to private care closer to home. That might seem like a good thing, but it also might not be the best thing.
While it’s too early to determine how effective this new policy is -- both in terms of wait as well as care -- there is no better time than Veterans Day to raise awareness about what we owe these men and women who risk their lives to defend us, and sometimes continue to pay the price long after their service has ended.
The VA has made significant improvements in wait times, so the new policy may be irrelevant.
The Journal of the American Medical Association reported in January (six months before the new policy began) that the VA significantly reduced wait times between 2014 and 2017. In comparing appointments in primary care, dermatology, cardiology and orthopedics, the study found that patients waited an average of 22.5 days to see a VA provider compared to 18.7 days for private-sector physicians five years ago; but, by 2017, the VA wait time was 17.7 days, while the private-sector average had ballooned to 29.8 days. Only to see orthopedic specialists was the wait shorter in the private sector.
The VA overall has not earned applause for care (remember the scandal of 2014), but local veterans say they are fortunate to have good care minutes away in the Twin Cities or a few hours down Interstate 94 in Madison, Wis. On a five-point scale, the Minneapolis VA earned five stars in 2017 and four in 2018 while the Madison VA earned four stars in 2017 and five in 2018, according to the Veterans Action Network.
Veterans and their families also indicate that local VA providers understand the unique issues that arise due to military service. Consider that veterans experience mental health disorders, substance use disorders, post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury at disproportionate rates compared to civilians. VA physicians, nurses, psychiatrists and social workers receive specific training to identify and help address these.
In addition, medical advancements on the battlefield and the operating room mean servicemen and women survive their injuries at a higher rate today. They live, however, with limb amputation and mental scarring for example. Private-sector health care professionals are able address to these issues.
Veterans Day 2019 reminds us that the VA is vital to the well-being of veterans, whose physical and psychological wounds are as great as ever. We owe it to them to get them the best possible care when and where they need it.