No, the VA is not broken

No, the VA is not broken
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These days, it’s hard to open a newspaper or watch the news without hearing the latest spin about how the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is failing veterans. You see politicians and pundits racing to condemn every minor imperfection without a word of the great work this one-of-a-kind system does for America’s heroes.

The truth is, if you ask the veterans themselves, a much different picture of the VA begins to emerge.

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The VA is the largest integrated healthcare system in the country, offering services to veterans unmatched in the private sector. It is a network of 160-plus medical centers and 1,000-plus affiliated healthcare sites across the country that serve 5.8 million veterans each year at 707,000 inpatient and 92 million outpatient appointments.

Since reports of drastic understaffing and waitlists emerged in 2014, the VA has hired an additional 14,000 healthcare workers, opened up 3.9 million more square feet of clinical space and added 20 million provider hours of care, as well as slashed the disability compensation and claims backlog by 87 percent. By overhauling its scheduling system, the VA has made gains in providing timely appointments. In the last two years, 97 percent of appointments in the VA were completed within 30 days, with an average wait time of 6.5 days to see a primary care doctor. That’s compared to 19.5 days on average for non-VA patients in the private sector.

The VA has a large and vital footprint in American medicine, and it’s steadily growing. Sixty-five percent of all doctors practicing in the U.S. received all or part of their residency training in VA facilities. VA employees have won three Nobel prizes and seven Lasker awards. They pioneered the first liver transplant, invented the cardiac pacemaker, developed the nicotine patch, and engineered bionic ankle-foot prostheses, among countless other innovations. It’s also the only nationwide healthcare provider with fully integrated electronic health records, meaning veterans can walk into any VA facility and have seamless access to quality care designed for their unique needs — a capability that has saved lives during natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina.

Using an innovative patient-team approach, the VA treats the veteran as a whole patient, with all caregivers sharing information and developing custom-tailored treatment plans. Both body and mind are given equal priority. This design is even more important for veterans returning home suffering from combat-specific ailments, including spinal cord injuries, traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder. The VA is the unrivaled national leader in treating these conditions, earning widespread praise and adoption of its methods.

But the VA’s expertise is not just limited to veteran-centric conditions — it extends to the full range of primary and specialty health practices. To take one example, a 2014 study comparing VA mental healthcare to the private sector found that “in every case, VA performance was superior to that of the private sector by more than 30 percent.” This is substantial, considering that rates of suicide between 2000–2010 increased by 40 percent among veterans who didn’t use the VA but declined 20 percent among those who did. To veterans, the VA is more than a just another healthcare system — it’s a community of service members from all wars, conditions and walks of life. The healing they get from this community is something that can never be replicated in the for-profit sector.

According to a November 2015 Vet Voice Foundation survey, a two-thirds majority of veterans opposed privatizing the VA, and 80 percent said they did not want it replaced with a voucher system. Last month, eight of the largest veteran service organizations in the country spoke out against a proposal by the VA Commission on Care — the group created to develop recommendations for improving access to quality VA healthcare — that would dismantle the VA and sell it off to private for-profit hospitals. As the only system that offers veterans integrated, universal access to highly tailored care, it’s no wonder they prefer to get treatment at the VA.

We all know that no human endeavor is perfect, and the VA is no exception. But no amount of rhetoric can change the fact that the VA offers the best healthcare available for our veterans. It is the only system equipped to offer them the type of treatment and healing they have earned through their sacrifice. If we continue to ignore the facts and let the fleeting headlines and political hot air drive the conversation, we could see the VA stripped for parts and auctioned off to the lowest bidder. We cannot let that happen. We must not break our promise to our nation’s veterans.

Cox is national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents more than 670,000 federal and D.C. government employees nationwide, and served as a VA nurse for 20 years.