The Killing Fields of Socialized Healthcare
A Commentary by Charlie Katebi, Wyoming Liberty Group

The Department of Veterans Affairs is the perfect example of socialized healthcare. The federal government owns all the hospitals, employs all the staff, and leaves patients to languish and sometimes die on waitlists. A year after news broke that VA hospitals kept veterans waiting months to see a doctor, including in Wyoming, the VA still refuses to admit its methods endangered veterans. But new evidence reveals that the agency's practices are disastrous for our wounded warriors.

The Office of Special Council, the investigative arm of the federal government, recently reported that VA scheduling procedures directly resulted in the death of many patients. In 2010, former Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki started issuing bonuses to administrators that kept patient wait times low. Administrators that kept patient wait times below 14 days could earn up to $15,000 in bonuses. Sounds great right?

But to meet these goals, administrators used a slight of hand to conceal how many patients were waiting to see a doctor. Patients that could be seen within 14 days were submitted into the official electronic record. The rest were put on a secret paper log, hidden from official scrutiny. While VA hospitals looked like they were seeing patients in a timely manner, patients suffered for months in need of care.

An internal audit discovered that over 90 percent of veteran hospital administrators, including some at the Cheyenne VA Medical Center, earned bonuses while abandoning patients on waiting lists. By 2014, over 270,000 veterans were waiting at least 125 days to see a doctor.

VA administrators excused this obscene patient abuse by claiming they misunderstood the VA's scheduling procedures. This couldn't be further from the truth. Cheyenne's VA staff were fully aware of VA procedures and knowingly disobeyed them under orders from supervisors. Emails sent by former Telehealth Coordinator David Newman explicitly instructed staff to falsify wait times:

"Yes, it is gaming the system a bit. But you have to know the rules of the game you are playing, and when we exceed the 14 day measure, the front office gets very upset."

Despite overwhelming evidence, the VA has little interest in disciplining abusive employees. Internal documents leaked to the New York Times revealed that only eight employees were punished because of this scandal. One was fired, one entered early retirement, another's removal is pending, and the rest have been suspended for two months with full benefits. Yet a VA audit found that 13 percent of its schedulers nationwide were altering wait times under orders from administrators.

To add insult to injury, the director of Cheyenne's VA who oversaw this suffering, Cynthia McCormick, remains in her position and kept over $27,000 in bonuses she received while wait times were doctored.

The VA's outrageous response to this humanitarian tragedy shouldn't surprise anyone. The agency maintains that patient wait times didn't result from inept incentives and corrupt workers, but from a "failure to properly train staff" on proper scheduling procedure. Even worse, the agency refuses to admit these abuses "resulted in a danger to public health and safety."

However, the Office of Special Council reported to President Obama that the VA's claims of "harmless error" were unsupported. When patients can't see doctors in time, their conditions worsen and many pay the ultimate price. After combing through government investigations and media reports, former Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn found nearly a thousand veterans died as a result of the VA's systemic neglect of patients. These include eight patients who died waiting for appointments at Cheyenne's VA.

After serving in battle to protect our freedoms, our veterans require some of the most intensive care imaginable. Yet they are stuck in an unresponsive and unaccountable federal agency, from which they too should be freed. Our veterans deserve better.

Charlie Katebi, Wyoming Liberty Group

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