California Vets Are Suffering Outrageous Wait Times, Too, or Are They?

Monday, June 16, 2014

report (pdf) by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) about long wait times for vets to see doctors has amped up calls to privatize veterans’ health care that hit their stride during recent revelations about problems in the Phoenix area.

California facilities, like those across the country, failed to approach the avowed goal of getting care to any vet within 14 days of their asking. Average wait times to see a primary care doctor in the state’s eight regions ranged from 56.2 days in the Greater Los Angeles Health Care System to 25.5 days in Fresno.

Other measures of wait times for first-time mental health patients and specialty care were just as dismal. It took 61.4 days, on average, for a new patient to see someone about specialty care in Fresno and 39.3 days for a new patient in the L.A. area to get seen for mental health treatment.

The federal audit of more than 700 VA hospitals and big outpatient clinics found that 57,436 patients had waited more than three months for medical appointments and 63,869 who had been enrolled in the system for a decade still hadn’t seen a doctor despite requesting one, too.

Congressional Republicans immediately set about working on plans to give veterans the flexibility to seek private treatment using vouchers, a move critics see as a first step toward privatizing the public system. Some of those critics blame GOP reluctance to expend tax dollars on anything other than military armaments in general, and veterans in particular, as the root cause of problems at the VA.

Others are asking a more fundamental question: Does the hurried 54-page audit—long on rhetoric and a tad short on data—really show a problem?

Phillip Longman at Washington Monthly starts with the 57,436 patients who waited more than 90 days for an appointment, less than 1% of the 6 million vets who didn’t. He wonders how many of them are Vietnam-era vets who have recently surged to use VA facilities after the loosening of some eligibility rules or have another story to tell. 

Longman also wonders what the 63,869 patient-wannabes have been doing for the decade they’ve been waiting for an appointment since the report doesn’t offer any information about it. No reason is given for the lack of connection. Could they have found private insurance through an employer, moved, died or taken the advice often given newly-discharged vets to sign up with the VA immediately so they can be grandfathered in if eligibility rules change in the future?  

This is a report driven hard by politics. If it were driven by a societal imperative to care properly for veterans—many of whom are homeless, unemployed and suffering mightily from decades of warfare and deprivation—the problems at VA hospitals wouldn’t exist or come as a shock to people.

The audit was completed quickly and includes disclaimers that future reports will do better because, “This accelerated effort led, unavoidably, to a number of limitations, which serve to caution against over–interpretation of these findings.”

But like the Los Angeles Superior Court judge who blamed the unconstitutional sorry state of education solely on 1% to 3% of teachers who are subpar and used that as an excuse to decimate California teacher protections and union power, it is apparently OK to ignore the vast complexity of an issue to make expedient political points. 

Afterall, it’s for the kids and the vets.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Just How Long Are Those Wait Times at the VA Really? (by Phillip Longman, Washington Monthly)

V.A. Audit Finds Long Waits for Care Are Widespread (by Richard A. Oppel Jr., New York Times)

New Audit of VA Finds 3-Month Waits for Medical Appointments (by Richard Simon and Alan Zarembo, Los Angeles Times)

VA Audit: New Patients Wait 56 Days in Los Angeles (by Kevin Freking, Associated Press)

Audit: More than 57,000 Await First VA Appointment (by Matthew Daly, Associated Press)

Wait Times for New VA Patients in California (Associated Press)

57,000 Veterans Waiting more than 3 Months for First Medical Appointments; 64,000 Not Even on the List (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

Access Audit System–Wide Review of Access (Department of Veterans Affairs) (pdf)

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