The COVID-19 pandemic has brought the American health care system to its knees. Hard-hit metro areas are unable to keep up with the influx of patients. Inadequate testing capabilities and years of neglect have left rural communities vulnerable. Whether in rural or urban America, both private and non-profit hospitals face the near inevitability of drastic rationing of care.
Despite the heroic efforts of health care workers, the government and the broader health care system are unable to standardize a response to the pandemic, share information, staff, and supplies, further aggravating the crisis.
Many private hospitals have been reluctant to curtail elective surgical procedures because of the loss of revenue, despite the risk to patients and physicians. Some have furloughed much-needed staff rather than retraining and redeploying them to care for desperately ill patients. The navy has deployed two hospital ships, but they are unable to provide significant assistance.
This crisis shows that our fractured, profit-driven, the health care system is ill-prepared. Scarcity and competition improve profits, but a disaster exposes the inadequate supply of hospital beds, ventilators, and personal protective equipment. Meanwhile, health care workers are too few, overworked and underpaid.
The Department of Veterans Affairs' "fourth mission" is to “[develop] plans and taking actions to ensure continued service to veterans, as well as to support national, state, and local emergency management, public health, safety, and homeland security efforts.” Some powerful hospital groups, like the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association, have recognized their need for assistance and asked for help immediately.
The VA must execute that role to expand capacity in the private sector, but it must never neglect its first duty to care for veterans. Luckily, it can do both.
President TrumpDonald TrumpJan. 6 committee chair says panel will issue a 'good number' of additional subpoenas Overnight Defense & National Security — Presented by AM General — Pentagon officials prepare for grilling Biden nominates head of Africa CDC to lead global AIDS response MORE must correct an injustice that impacts a half-million veterans. The VA must and can provide care for veterans because of their “Other Than Honorable” discharge status. The VA has denied these vulnerable veterans their care for decades. Their discharge status is typically the result of addiction, mental illness, or other issues that were likely the result of their military service. The Trump administration can do this by either executive order or by rewriting the VA’s internal regulations.
Congress and the president to do what many non-veteran Americans assume is being done anyway: offer care to all veterans with no regard to their income or disability rating.
Today, veterans who have no service-connected disabilities and whose incomes are too high are ineligible for VHA care. Those who have served in the military, whether healthy or more affluent, have all sacrificed for our country. Neither their health nor their higher incomes protect them from the highly contagious COVID-19 disease. If you’ve served in the U.S. Armed Forces, you should be able to get your care at the VA.
Veterans’ families should also be granted access to care at the Veterans Health Administration. Military service and sacrifice is a family affair. It only makes sense that veterans and their families who stick together should get care together. By expanding coverage to veterans’ families (a practice that was, until this February the status quo on military bases), Americans can finally acknowledge the sacrifices that military families regularly make when their spouse or parent serves our nation. These sacrifices don’t just impact one generation of veterans. The financial, physical and emotional results affect multiple generations.
Finally, VHA care should also be made immediately available to all VHA, VBA and NCA employees. Today, VHA employees are putting their lives at risk to take care of veterans. A third of these employees are veterans, some of whom are not even eligible for VHA care. It has always been illogical to deny VA staff the ability to get care in the facilities in which they work and contribute. Now, as they jeopardize their health and well-being, it’s unethical to force them into a collapsing private sector system and deny them the same high-quality care they give veterans.
The president and Congress have the power to make many of these changes now. The VA has 170 medical centers and almost 1,200 sites of care, including outpatient clinics, nursing homes, inpatient residential programs and campus and community-based centers that are ready to serve.
Expanding care to all veterans, their families and VA employees will create capacity in an overburdened private health care system. It will also reduce the rate of America’s uninsured and underinsured. And the most important reason? It’s the morally right thing to do.
Brett Copeland is the executive director of the Veterans Healthcare Policy Institute, a non-profit founded by veterans, health care providers, and journalists.