Editorial: The VA’s creaky bandwagon: Can a fix be made to last?

Last modified: Friday, June 20, 2014
The House of Representatives voted twice last week to do more to care for America’s veterans. On June 10, lawmakers approved a measure, 421-0, to speed treatment to veterans on waiting lists by allowing them to see doctors outside the Department of Veterans Affairs system.

An hour later, the House voted the same bill again because five members, including the Republican chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee, missed the first tally.

No one in Congress wanted to be a no-show on veterans care, now that the scale of the problem in the VA system is known — including long delays in providing access to specialists and primary-care physicians through the system here in Leeds.

But Congress let this problem happen by being far more ready to go to war than to care for the people who wage it. It is great — if unusual — to see agreement in Congress about a problem that needs fixing. Such is the power of the flag in homefront politics. Many of these same lawmakers couldn’t be bothered to bolster the VA system despite clear evidence that its services would be overwhelmed by returning veterans. And now, some of them want to send troops back into Iraq with nothing to be gained — and so much lost.

For a long time, the instinct within the VA system has been to hide the fact that, in many cases, it makes veterans wait a long time to get medical attention. An internal audit released last week pinpointed problems. They include convoluted scheduling procedures that VA clerks didn’t understand and a growing demand for care that swamped the system and left it unable to meet its goal of seeing new patients within 14 days. On top of that, the audit, based on over 3,770 interviews, found that 13 percent of those scheduling medical appointments had been told by supervisors to fudge the dates requested by veterans.

In this region, the Leeds hospital has been flagged for further investigation. If it finds misconduct there, the VA says that will be reported to the VA Office of Inspector General. If the IG’s office doesn’t act immediately, the VA says it will launch its own investigation in Northampton. If employees acted unlawfully, they should be removed from these positions of public trust. It’s more likely workers at the local VA are guilty only of signing up for a mission that was inadequately supported from Washington, D.C.

Three years ago, the Leeds medical center took on a big new caseload from patients who use outpatient clinics in Worcester and Fitchburg. For that or other reasons, the local VA ended up on the high end of waiting times in the audit released last week: 72 days for patients seeking primary care, 67 days for specialists and 28 for mental health care. That last waiting period was in line with other VA hospitals, but the delay facing primary care was higher than anywhere else but Providence, R.I., and the wait for specialists was longer than any other New England center.

The local VA says it hasn’t been able to hire specialists in fields like optometry, neurology, urology and dermatology. With too few doctors for the number of veterans seeking treatment, delays were inevitable.

Congress is pushing through measures to cut the backlog by allowing use of outside doctors. The Leeds VA is already linking patients with care through Cooley Dickinson Hospital and Baystate Medical Center. That’s a smart solution that should get veterans the care they need and deserve. While attention to the VA scandal will fade, there is no stopping the demand. We worry this is a problem that once fixed, won’t stay that way.