Can the VA fix its problems?

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Veterans’ health treatment and care have been under close scrutiny recently as it has come out that many veterans are seeing extensive delays that prevent them from getting the help they need. Whether the health needs are physical or mental, veterans have been forced to wait for care while their health deteriorates and more names build up on the waiting list.

Marine Corps Sgt. Joshua Boucard and his family at the Hunter Holmes McGuire Richmond VA Medical Center

Marine Corps Sgt. Joshua Boucard and his family at the Hunter Holmes McGuire Richmond VA Medical Center

Last week, while the inspector general of the Department of Veterans Affairs was preparing a report on exactly these types of issues at the VA’s Phoenix facility which has been at the center of the scandal, President Obama addressed these issues and pledged to double down on efforts to improve veterans’ health care. However many are skeptical if the President’s words are too little, too late.

In a speech on August 26, President Obama spoke before the American Legion and noted that improving health care involves “doing even more to help veterans from all wars who are struggling with traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress. And we have to end this tragedy among our troops and veterans.”

Much of President Obama’s speech focused on the mental health and brain health issues quickly reaching epidemic levels within our active service military and veterans. Firstly Obama mentioned efforts to expand suicide prevention training throughout both the military and VA, as the most recent statistics suggest more than 22 veterans take their lives every day. That is only slightly less than a suicide an hour.

Additionally, the President also highlighted mental health issues as he promised “we’re going to make it easier for service members being treated for mental health conditions to continue their care as they transition to the VA, automatically connecting them with the support they need [and] making sure they don’t lose access to any medications they may be taking.”

With these promises, the White House also announced several other initiatives including a collaboration between the Department of Defense and the National Institutes of Health to detect and manage suicidality and PTSD at earlier stages.

These projects could very well lead to breakthroughs in the treatment of our vets, but they also notably seem to avoid the real issues of access to treatment. Obama did address the ongoing issues with access to care the the VA during his recent speech, saying that overall “once veterans get in the door, the care [they] receive from the VA is often very good. The specialized care is among the best in the world … But what we’ve come to learn is that the misconduct we’ve seen at too many facilities – with long wait times, and veterans denied care, and folks cooking the books – is outrageous and inexcusable.”

The President’s harsh words on the issue may calm some, but many veterans have already heard too many empty promises. While countless veterans are dealing with health issues that impede their ability to live a fulfilling day-to-day life, the care system has put up wall after wall between the injured and treatment and the quality of treatment has plunged under the stress of the long wait lists and limited resources available.

Perhaps the most troubling issue is the fact that many veterans are faced with disabling conditions such as traumatic brain injuries and PTSD which increase the risk of emotional problems and suicidality. Despite the serious and time-sensitive nature of this issue, there are still no real assurances that these veterans can get the high quality care that could save their lives in time.

Thankfully, a solution is lurking in recent legislation signed into law by President Obama to help address this crisis.

Last week, President Obama signed legislation which provisioned to fill shortages in VA healthcare workers and allowed veterans who live more than 40 miles from a VA facility to go to a non-VA care provider. It is an arbitrary decision intended to help alleviate heavy loads on the VA throughout the scandal, but the possibility of opening care for veterans to non-VA hospitals has the potential to improve both the speed and level of care.

The long wait lists have been seen as the center of the VA situation, but the investigations into treatment through the VA system have also brought up issues of care quality. Once veterans gain access to care through the current system, the treatment they receive is often substandard to what may be available in the private sector due to limited funding and high demand.

The simple fact is that the VA has a long road ahead of it before many of these solutions can come to fruition. The steps signed and announced by Obama may have a great impact on the level of care veterans receive, but not tomorrow. While the VA faces its shortcomings and works to solve the myriad of problems which have caused this crisis, veterans still need care and they can’t be kept waiting any longer.

For the time being, it makes the most sense to expand access to care for veterans to services and providers outside the VA while the VA sorts out the issues that have caused these lengthy wait times and decreasing level of care. With veterans able to look elsewhere, the VA will be able to speed up access and improve the level of care for those who stay on wait lists while simultaneously addressing their problems and improving care.

Most importantly, by expanding access to providers outside of the VA system we can ensure those who have served our country receive the highest level of care at a minimal wait. While the VA has been cited for being specifically ineffective in the treatment of issues such as traumatic brain injury and mental health, specialized treatment providers such as Brookhaven are able to offer the highest level of care without forcing individuals to live with and struggle with debilitating health issues for unreasonable amounts of time.

The solution may not be perfect, but while politicians can continue promising to improve care through grand research projects and legislative policies, veterans need healthcare now. – not months or years from now when these projects have born fruit and the VA has worked out their problems. If our leaders truly want to save lives and solve the issues within the VA, expanding coverage further is the only logical move.

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