The Post ed­i­to­rial: Trump has promised to make re­form­ing the VA a top pri­or­ity. He should back the Choice pro­gram.

The Denver Post - - NEWS - The mem­bers of The Den­ver Post’s ed­i­to­rial board are Wil­liam Dean Sin­gle­ton, chair­man; Mac Tully, CEO and pub­lisher; Chuck Plun­kett, editor of the ed­i­to­rial pages; Megan Schrader, ed­i­to­rial writer; and Cohen Peart, opin­ion editor.

News that vet­er­ans in Colorado are deal­ing with long waits to get into Vet­er­ans Af­fairs hospi­tals and fa­cil­i­ties is truly de­press­ing, and should add weight to ar­gu­ments for con­tin­ued sup­port of the Choice pro­gram that cov­ers pri­vate vis­its when VA doc­tors are too busy.

Given that our na­tion seems to be on a path of per­pet­ual war, those who vol­un­teer to put life and limb on the line to de­fend us ought to trust that the VA stands ready to help when in­juries and ill­ness strike.

Sadly, the VA has some more work to do to live up to that re­spon­si­bil­ity. As The Den­ver Post’s David Migoya re­ported, wait times for med­i­cal ap­point­ments at vet­er­ans fa­cil­i­ties in the Den­ver metro area and across the East­ern Plains are lit­tle bet­ter than they were three years ago, when a na­tional scan­dal forced of­fi­cials to prom­ise they would do bet­ter.

In­stead, the wait for a pri­mary care ap­point­ment in Den­ver’s VA med­i­cal cen­ter — more than 18 days — is three times longer than the trou­bled fa­cil­ity in Phoenix, the poster child for the wait-time scan­dal. That scan­dal high­lighted prob­lems with se­cret wait lists and long waits that led to deaths and se­ri­ous health com­pli­ca­tions in fa­cil­i­ties all over the coun­try.

As of July 1, the wait in Den­ver is four times the na­tional av­er­age. In the 13 clin­ics and hospi­tals within the VA’s East­ern Colorado Health Care Sys­tem, av­er­age pri­mary care waits were more than 12 days. Al­most 13.5 percent of all ap­point­ments in that sys­tem were longer than 30 days, earn­ing the dis­mal dis­tinc­tion of worst in the na­tion.

The find­ings Migoya re­ported help put in use­ful con­text the ide­o­log­i­cal fight in Congress last week over a quick-fix con­tin­ued fund­ing of the Choice pro­gram, which cov­ers pri­vate care for vet­er­ans who can’t ef­fi­ciently get in to see a VA physician. Congress re­acted to the Phoenix de­ba­cle by cov­er­ing vet­eran vis­its to doc­tors out­side the VA if ap­point­ments at gov­ern­ment fa­cil­i­ties ran longer than 30 days or drives were longer than 40 miles.

Crit­ics of con­tin­ued fund­ing of Choice — a pro­gram we sup­port — say it keeps needed money from the VA bud­get and ex­ac­er­bates the prob­lem it is meant to ad­dress. Their ar­gu­ment would hold more cre­dence if the VA wasn’t al­ready deal­ing with an ex­o­dus of tal­ent. As we noted a year ago, the VA in 2015 lost 7,734 physi­cians, reg­is­tered nurses, physician as­sis­tants, psy­chol­o­gists and phys­i­cal ther­a­pists — a loss rate of more than 8 percent.

The brain drain is oc­cur­ring at a time of height­ened scru­tiny of the VA for the wait time and other scan­dals — like the bud­get-bust­ing VA hos­pi­tal still un­der con­struc­tion in Aurora.

Ex­tend­ing the Choice plan with $2.1 bil­lion in new fund­ing eas­ily passed the House last week, and the Se­nate is ex­pected to send the mea­sure to Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, who sup­ports the pri­vate scheme.

Trump’s VA sec­re­tary, David Shulkin, ar­gues con­vinc­ingly that the Choice ef­fort isn’t meant to lead to a pri­va­ti­za­tion of the over­all sys­tem. In­stead, it is help­ing bridge the gap. Choice has cov­ered 18 mil­lion ap­point­ments this year. Mean­while, the over­all VA bud­get is nearly four times what it was in 2001.

Trump has promised to make re­form­ing the VA a top pri­or­ity, and the Choice pro­gram gives his ad­min­is­tra­tion room to move. We’re glad to see it ex­tended for now, and hope Shulkin can make the next re­port on wait times a bet­ter one.

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