The release this week of a comprehensive audit of the Veterans Affairs health care system has given a local perspective to what had been a national scandal.

The report showed that more than 1,000 New Mexico veterans had been waiting three months or longer for their initial medical appointment. Average wait times were 46 days for new patients seeking primary care and 38 days for those seeking mental health treatment. Those needing specialty care waited an average of two months.

At least 21 veterans in the state died while waiting for care. An ongoing investigation will attempt to determine what role a delay in care may have played in those deaths.

The audit showed that nationwide, 57,000 veterans have been waiting 90 days or more for appointments, and an additional 64,000 requested medical care but never were entered into the VA system. It also showed widespread attempts throughout the system to falsify documents and cover up the problem.

Former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki has resigned, but the systemic and long-term problems that have plagued the agency for decades can not be pinned on one man. Clearly, there are other administrators throughout the system who need to be replaced as well.

But, we believe the vast majority of medical professionals who work for the VA are doing the best they can under the circumstances. With the return of new veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan added to the wave of those from WWII, Korea and Vietnam now needing chronic and end-of-life care, the system has simply been overwhelmed. More than 2 million new patients have been added to the rolls in the last five years.

The good news is that the national spotlight being shined on the VA is bringing about changes.

In New Mexico, Dr. Meghan Gerety told The Associated Press that they are now holding open clinics on weekends, are considering a hotline for veterans seeking care, and that two new teams of medical professionals are being hired.

On the national level, the new interim VA secretary has increased spending by $300 million to keep clinics open longer and to contract with private clinics to treat veterans unable to get care through the VA. A bill was passed Wednesday by the Senate to increase funding and accountability for the VA. Another has been introduced in the House to allow veterans to seek immediate care from private doctors and medical centers closest to them. Those are reasonable measures to address the immediate crisis.

But the effort can't end there. We have made a covenant with those whom we have sent into battle. Fulfilling our end of that covenant will be expensive, but it is a solemn obligation that can't be shirked.

 

—Las Cruces Sun-News, June 13