The Blog

VA Hospital or Workers' Paradise?

10:50 AM, Dec 13, 2007 • By AARON MACLEAN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

ABC World News With Charles Gibson ran an ill-considered story last night trumpeting the quality of the health care provided to our nation's veterans. The opening was provocative and the agenda was clear:

"Socialized medicine may sound un-American, but in fact, it's exactly what we provide to our American heroes -- the more than 5 million armed forces veterans and their families. They get health care that the government both pays for and delivers. It's the Veterans Affairs Healthcare System, and according to health care experts such as Phil Longman -- it's become one of the best health care systems in the country."

The story went on to focus primarily on how the VA has pioneered the use of electronic medical records, which have, reportedly, improved efficiency and met with wide approval from all sides. The video images accompanying the report depicted smiling, helpful physicians aiding old vets in pristine clinical facilities, and other touches of mild agitprop. A nice bit of editorializing finishes it off:

"Though government can't just expand the VA system for the whole country (that's not possible politically or logistically), the basic concept is adaptable. The VA uses a system that keeps track of patients for a lifetime and uses electronic records to reduce errors and provide up-to-date proven treatment. That idea can be adopted by other insurance systems and hospitals."

No mention to be found of the media's (justifiably) brutal treatment of how our vets were doing at Walter Reed not that many months ago, nor any hint that there might be those out there who are not quite as pleased with the VA as ABC would have us think: for example, the huge number of vets who prefer to use private insurance. Now, the VA doesn't run Walter Reed, but all centrally run health care in wealthy countries suffers from the same syndrome, as anyone who has every been treated by the military, the VA, or for that matter the UK's National Health Service, can attest: serious injuries and illnesses tend to receive prompt, world class treatment, but minor or moderate ailments will leave you adrift on multi-year waiting lists, forced to deal with medical professionals (often not doctors) who are overworked, underpaid, and overwhelmed by the demand.

Thus, if you are shot, stabbed, exploded or otherwise injured in any distant corner of the Iraqi desert, the U.S. military boasts that it can have you at a surgical operating theater in one hour, and in Germany, or for that matter, stateside, as quickly as your condition demands it. And it's more or less true--your chances of survival are excellent, compared to historical standards. In the course of the first week, more than a million dollars might be spent on your case. But the military is far better at this sort of thing than it is with helping patients deal with the long term aches, pains, disabilities and minor injuries that are sure to follow, as has been amply documented. Vets with private health care often use that instead, just as wealthy Brits tend to avoid the NHS. ABC ought to tell the whole, rather more balanced story.