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