What’s the best thing to do for the VA hospitals?

June 2, 2014

By John A. Tures

Professor of Political Science

LaGrange College

Now that Veterans Administration (VA) Secretary Eric Shinseki, a former general, has resigned, what should be done about the VA hospitals?

A Fox News guest suggested that the VA secretary should be personally greeting everyone who comes through the doors of the VA hospital, shaking everyone’s hand, and make personal assurances that everyone is greeted and will be personally taken care of.

It’s a nice sentiment, but it may not be the most practical solution. After all, the controversial Phoenix VA hospital, which is at the center of the investigation, serves over 80,000 patients a year, according to Associated Press research for Fox News article. That’s a lot of hands to personally shake (219 a day) just at that facility alone, not counting the other 1,700 VA facilities.

Moreover, the problem isn’t the folks coming into the facility. The problem was people waiting for treatment, which often involves people waiting offsite for their turn. It’s not that the VA secretary wasn’t shaking enough hands. It’s that the hands sometimes weren’t in the hospital in the first place.

North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr blamed veterans groups for not being tough enough on VA Secretary Shinseki, a four-star general. Blaming the advocates of better treatment for our veterans wasn’t the smartest move.

Fox News’ Charles Krauthammer suggested privatizing the VA. And there are plenty of cases where the private sector can do a better job than government at providing services. While this would be an improvement on the Fox News contributor’s idea, as well as Sen. Burr’s tactics, it may not be the best idea.

Privatization is often measured by cost cutting, not always in service improvement. That’s because privatization is different from a private sector startup. When someone creates a company, they want to do a better job than someone else, which would be a good idea. When the government wants to engage in “privatization,” it means that they sometimes want to turn over a public service to a private entity that is either politically well-connected, or will do the job on the cheap.

Remember when the VA had a scandal in 2006 when a VA worker lost a laptop with data on more than 25 million veterans? Folks focused on the lost laptop, and didn’t realize that the bureaucrat who lost the data was asked to weed out some PTSD cases.

In fact, doing things on the cheap may be how we got into this scandal in the first place. Research by other senators revealed that the cost-cutting practices of the most recent Congress may have led to the reduced services and longer waiting list. The VA budget did increase, but the costs are increasing. “Five years ago, the [Dayton] VA treated 32,858 veterans who accounted for 360,946 visits at a cost of $588 per visit. Under Dayton VA projections, those numbers will rise to 36,691 veterans making 470,151 visits at a cost of $607 per visit,” according to an article in the Dayton Daily News.

Luckily for the budget cutters in the Congress, the preliminary findings have shown that those who died waiting for treatment did not perish because they were waiting for the treatment, according to the VA Inspector General. But the research is still preliminary.

President Obama has appointed a temporary replacement, Sloan Gibson, with private sector experience in banking. He also added a Justice Department investigation, not just allowing the VA internal inquiry to suffice. That may be the best option for the VA for now, as opposed to some of the other ideas floating around out there.

John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, GA