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Guest Editorial: VA health system is not getting better
Near the end of David Lean’s epic “Lawrence of Arabia,” a stern British medical officer enters a broken-down hospital. The conditions are nauseating, with dead and dying Turkish soldiers all about.
The officer approaches the berobed Lawrence and mistakes him for the Arab overseer who must be responsible for all the filth. He screams, “This is outrageous! This is outrageous!”
And Lawrence begins to laugh.
If ever a scene served as metaphor for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, it is this one.
We are growing accustomed to the never-ending refrain of outrage in a health-care system that has been failing men and women of honor for generations.
Now we’re once again confronted with a revelation that the VA has been covering up the abuses of many of its own health-care practitioners who have badly served patients.
A USA TODAY investigation found that the VA has not only failed to report many of its poorly performing medical providers to state licensing boards, it has stood by quietly as they have taken up new practices beyond the VA system.
Journalists looked at records at 100 VA facilities in 42 states. Among the major findings:
The VA has been hiding mistakes and misdeeds by staff members.
The system is so broken its policy on reporting to the national database has routinely left out thousands of wayward medical personnel.
In some cases VA hospitals signed secret settlement deals with dozens of doctors, nurses and health-care workers that assured concealment of serious mistakes.
In one alarming example, VA medical experts determined a podiatrist at a Maine veterans’ hospital had inserted the wrong screw into the bone of one veteran; severed “a critical tendon” in another; made incisions in patients who needed no surgery and botched the fusion of the ankle of a woman patient. Her pain led her to have her leg amputated.
VA officials didn’t fire the podiatrist and did not report him as a problem doctor to a national database.
“They let him quietly resign and move on to private practice,” explained USA TODAY reporters Donovan Slack and Michael Sallah, “then failed for years to disclose his past to his patients and state regulators who licensed him.”
If this sounds familiar, it is because the VA is perpetually dysfunctional.
After USA TODAY’s recent expose, the VA announced it would rework its reporting procedures for problem medical workers. And Congress is introducing legislation to force VA doctors themselves to report directly to state licensing boards within five days of witnessing bad behavior from colleagues.
The VA system is a chronic failure, poorly conceived and poorly managed over decades under presidents of both parties.
These pages have long argued that veterans would enjoy better and more timely care if the federal government left the conventional care of veterans to the private sector and focused solely on the injuries and afflictions unique to military service.
Until the VA stops behaving like a parallel medical universe and begins to specialize in the unique needs of veterans, we are likely to continue to see abuses, such as the agency’s silence as bad VA docs are able to move quietly on to the private sector without repercussions.
“It’s unacceptable,” says Michael Carome, director of the Washington, D.C.,-based Public Citizen health-research group. “What (the VA is) saying is, ‘We don’t want you to work for us, but we’ll help you get a job elsewhere.’
Arizona Republic, Oct. 15