What the NYT and WaPo Missed About the VA System While They Were Praising It

We now know that the state of affairs within the VA system was abhorrent for years — and that Obama, like his predecessor, knew there were problems. And yet, several well known left-leaning columnists spoke highly about the VA health system anyway, especially ramping up the rhetoric right at the time Obamacare began to take shape in Congress in 2009.

Obama’s objectives regarding the VA were laid out in the Obama Transition Plan for when he took office. Obama had been warned about the problems in 2008, so he stated that he wanted to “make the VA a leader of national health care reform so that veterans get the best care possible”.

Therefore, shortly after his inauguration, Obama spoke to Congress in February 2009 to discuss healthcare reform, and the process toward the Affordable Care Act (ACA) began.

At the same time in 2009, both Nicholas Kristof and Paul Krugman of the NYT and Ezra Klein of the Washington Post heaped praised the VA system. They must have read Obama’s VA talking points:.

Kristof: It is fully government run, much more “socialized medicine” than is Canadian health care with its private doctors and hospitals. And the system for veterans is by all accounts one of the best-performing and most cost-effective elements in the American medical establishment.

Paul Krugman: Let’s talk about health care around the advanced world…. By the way, our own Veterans Health Administration, which is run somewhat like the British health service, also manages to combine quality care with low costs.”

Klein: The “VA is actually socialized medicine, where the government owns the hospitals and employs the doctors. If you ordered America’s different health systems worst-functioning to best, it would look like this: individual insurance market, employer-based insurance market, Medicare, Veterans Health Administration”.

It is clear that these writers never had any information, nor had they done any research on the VA, the quality of its services, or its financial and operational efficiency. They write what they wish to be as fact, hoping that their readers won’t find them out. You are certainly free to wonder about the credibility and integrity of their other writings.

The ACA began to be debated seriously during the fall of 2009 and it passed on March 25, 2010. It was during this same time that the secret waiting lists were developed at many VA centers. In the midwest alone, ten facilities have been found with the secret waitings lists, along with the most widely known problem in Arizona. These were clearly not “rogue” employees but signal part of a wider, concerted effort to keep issues quiet.

How did this happen? At least one attempt to fix the problem never got off the ground after nearly a decade of trying.

Apparently a medical scheduling project for the VA was begun in 2000 and was discontinued in 2009, 9 years after it the project began — and it remained utterly unfinished. Nothing seems to have been done for another 3 years until 2012, when the Secretary of Veteran’s Affairs launched a contest to create an app for scheduling — a contest which didn’t close until the summer of 2013.

According to a press release in 2013 announcing the winners in the “scheduling app” contest, it was noted that the “VA started to develop a Medical Scheduling Package replacement in 2000. This effort was not successful. When VA ended the project in 2009, none of the planned capabilities were delivered. It had cost more than $127 million”.

And was used at the VA between the end of the Medical Scheduling Package project in 2009 and the Medical Scheduling App Contest of 2012/2013?

We now know there were secret waiting lists as some of the facilities. It also appears the the Obama Administration knew about the “secret waiting lists” as early as 2010. The Daily Caller reports that there was an internal VA investigation in 2010 regarding “paper” waiting lists:

“We conducted this review to determine the validity of an allegation that senior officials in Veterans Integrated Service Network 20 (VISN) instructed employees at the Portland VA Medical Center to use unauthorized wait lists to hide access and scheduling problems,” according to an August 17, 2010 VA Office of Inspector General (OIG) report entitled “Review of Alleged Use of Unauthorized Wait Lists at the Portland VA Medical Center”

So, while the merits of the ACA was being debated, the VA’s scheduling system was scrapped, wasting $127 million. $127 million is a lot of taxpayer monies that could have been used on veterans’ treatments over the years.

But who was talking about it? No one. Certainly not the most widely read papers in this country.

Instead, we got reassurances from the press to a nervous public about the government’s ability to overesee healthcare, especially after the ACA passed in a controversial way. What’s more, the VA continued to be offered as a model even when the backlash to the law began.

In 2011, Paul Krugman of the NYT happily explained how successful the VA system: “The V.H.A. is a huge policy success story, which offers important lessons for future health reform. Many people still have an image of veterans’ health care based on the terrible state of the system two decades ago.”

Now we find out that it was clearly not working.

Underfunding the Department of Veterans Affairs is not the problem. From 2007 to 2012, enrollment in VA services has increased by 13% from 2007 to 2012. At the same time, the VA budget went from $82 million to $125 million — a 53% increase, and the biggest jump in the VA’s budget history since records go back to 1940. Yet the VA could not deliver quality services to our Veterans.

Government should not be handling our health systems. The fact that secret waiting lists existed shows just how far the government went to hide its incompetence in running a health system at the very time that Obamacare was being debated both in Congress and then in the public square. And the media supported the narrative that government delivered quality and efficient health care to our Veterans without checking to see if it was actually true.

If Congress and Americans knew the truth of the condition of the VA health system, it is quite possible that Obamacare would never have been allowed to become law.