Military Medicare | Ever-Growing Waits for Veterans’ Care
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08 Jul Ever-Growing Waits for Veterans’ Care

08wed3web-superJumboIt was shocking last year when hospitals operated by the Department of Veterans Affairs were caught falsifying data to hide the long delays endured by patients needing medical care.

What’s even more shocking is that despite strenuous efforts to improve the system, more veterans are facing long waits than before. As The Times’s Richard Oppel Jr. has reported, the number of veterans on waiting lists of one month or more is now 50 percent higher than at the height of last year’s crisis.

The problem may well get worse. The department, which operates a huge system of hospitals and clinics, expects a shortfall of about $2.5 billion in programs to treat veterans outside the department’s own facilities for the rest of this fiscal year, ending Sept. 30. It has asked Congress for permission to shift funds among various accounts to cover the shortfall, and leaders of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, though angry at the failure of the department to anticipate the problem, said they would work with other lawmakers to help cover the shortfall.

To address the waiting lists, the department has hired almost 1,100 doctors since April 2014, as well as more than 2,700 nurses and almost 4,700 other critical personnel like scheduling clerks. It has also greatly expanded the amount of clinical space. Those steps allowed the agency to handle an additional 2.7 million appointments over 12 months.

It has also authorized 1.5 million veterans to get care from hospitals and doctors in their communities in the past 12 months, a 36 percent increase over the previous period. With the internal and external care combined, the agency says it has increased its capacity by more than seven million visits per year, double what it originally thought was needed to end the backlogs.

The trouble is, that wasn’t enough. The demand for medical care for aging veterans of the Vietnam War with chronic ailments and younger veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan who are severely injured has soared. The workloads for doctors at V.A. facilities have increased by 18 percent to 21 percent in some regions, while the workload for doctors treating veterans outside the department grew by 50 percent in one region and 36 percent in another.

To help address the budget shortfall, the department is proposing to use unspent maintenance funds, reduce travel and training and impose furloughs or hiring freezes. It even considered rationing an effective but very costly drug for hepatitis C, a liver disease affecting 180,000 veterans. But it has wisely decided to provide it to every patient whose doctor deems it necessary.

Four major veterans groups said in a joint statement that the funding shortfall “continues a pattern of inadequate resources for rising demand.” Many veterans prefer to use the V.A., even when they may have other options. Congress needs to ensure that they can.

Editorial for New York Times – July 8, 2015