The Department of Veterans Affairs has been in the spotlight a lot these past two years. But amid all the media chatter and political jousting — some deserved, most not — one fundamental fact has been lost: The VA is by far the most successful health care system in the country on measures of both cost and quality.
The VA succeeds where most private hospitals fail, and excels in much more than just health care. The VA consistently reduces homelessness, helps veterans overcome complex barriers to receive educational and employment opportunities, and extends vital financial assistance to those who need it most. The VA also has pioneered countless medical innovations that have changed medicine and saved millions of lives.
In the 1920s the VA conducted its first-ever hospital-based medical studies. This lead to new treatments for malaria, insights on the long-term health effects of chemical warfare, and new methods for treating veterans with mental illness. In the 90-plus years since, VA personnel have built on its pioneering legacy, earning seven Lasker Awards, three Nobel Prizes, and numerous other honors for the VA’s commitment to research.
In 1958 VA researchers invented the cardiac pacemaker, used by 3 million people worldwide today. Ten years after that invention, the first successful liver transplant was performed at a VA hospital. And in the last 30 years, the nicotine patch, the first powered ankle-foot prosthesis and the largest genomic database in the world “aimed at preventing and treating illness among Veterans and all Americans” were all produced in and by the VA.
These accomplishments are no relic of the past: The VA’s Consolidated Mail Outpatient Pharmacy recently received J.D. Power’s highest customer satisfaction score for the sixth year in a row.
In a New England Journal of Medicine study measuring health care quality to compare veterans’ health facilities with fee-for-service Medicare, the study found that the VA was “significantly better” than private-sector health care in every facet. The Rand Corp. reported that the VA outperforms non-VA health care in preventative care, treatment and outpatient care. And the American Psychological Association reports that “VA performance was superior to that of the private sector by more than 30 percent.”
In addition to its medical mission, the VA also helps millions of veterans and their families through job training and employment support, financial aid, and by helping to end cycles of addiction and homelessness.
Since 2010 the VA has prevented 360,000 veterans and their families from becoming homeless, and has cut the number of unsheltered homeless veterans in half. Many of those now off the streets can thank the subsidized housing and addiction counseling programs offered at VA facilities nationwide. Their treatment of mind and body is crucial to the men and women who have served, since 25 percent of veterans suffer from chronic mental illnesses, and 16 percent struggle with addiction. Identifying problems like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression as factors in veteran addiction allows the VA to leverage their coordinated care, and exclusive treatment options. In fact, between 2000 and 2010, rates of suicide increased by 40 percent among veterans who didn’t use the VA, but declined 20 percent among those who did.
Job training has also been a major contributor to the VA’s sustained success in empowering veterans. In 2014 the veteran unemployment rate was 6 percent, but today that has fallen to 4.3 percent — lower than the national nonveteran unemployment rate.
Despite this success, the VA has not rested on its laurels, instead focusing intense energy on increasing the amount of medical providers and clinical space needed to addresses the deficiencies underlying the 2014 wait-list crisis.
Between July 1, 2015, and June 30, 2016, the VA completed more than 57.8 million appointments — a 1.1 million year-over-year increase. Now, the VA completes 97 percent of appointments within 30 days, with an average wait time of 6 ½ days to see a primary care doctor. The VA has a new website and mobile app veterans can use to book and track appointments. And there are now 39 facilities that offer same-day access to primary and mental health care.
The VA offers America’s veterans their own health care system, tailored to their needs, and helps them every day through job placement, educational assistance, financial counseling and homelessness mitigation. It is more than just a hospital system; it is a community of veterans from all wars and walks of life that heals them in ways no private hospital can.
That’s why AFGE is endorsing a new resolution by Reps. Raul Grijalva, Keith Ellison and Mark Takano that calls on Congress to invest in, and fix, the VA. The resolution will “support policies that provide necessary resources to serve our veterans by maintaining a robust Veterans Health Administration,” and “oppose policies that would jeopardize care by moving essential resources away from the Veterans Health Administration and into the private sector.” It has been endorsed by the American Legion, Disabled American Veterans, and the Union Veterans Council, and more veterans’ service organizations are expected to join.
Veterans understand the importance of a well-funded, public VA, and won’t stand for their government breaking the promise that was made to them for their service.
No human institution is or ever will be perfect. But the VA is rising to the challenge and creating a new generation of innovative solutions in its path to improvement. Let’s not let the politics of the moment undercut the well-being of generations of veterans to come.
J. David Cox Sr. is president of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents 230,000 VA employees nationwide.