WHAT OTHERS ARE SAYING: Help vets by demolishing VA system

WHAT OTHERS ARE SAYING: Help vets by demolishing VA system

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U.S. Sen Bernie Sanders is passionate about ensuring all Americans have health insurance. The Democratic presidential candidate is right to support offering Medicare to everyone, which makes fiscal and moral sense.

Sanders is also passionate about honoring this country’s veterans. But he is wrong about preserving and fortifying the Veterans Administration health care system.

During a recent visit to Iowa, Sanders released a plan that includes immediately filling nearly 50,000 vacancies within the VA, spending $62 billion (yes, billion with a b) to repair and update infrastructure in VA facilities and loosening regulations that qualify veterans for VA care.

These are not good ideas.

To really improve veterans’ access to a wide range of care, Congress should abolish the VA system, give veterans health insurance to visit any provider or hospital they choose and invest the money saved in the health care infrastructure all of us rely on.

The VA operates about 1,300 hospitals, nursing homes and clinics nationwide. Many veterans do not live near a facility, which forces them to drive long distances. Though Congress has expanded the ability for veterans to more easily get care in the private sector, that has created additional bureaucracy, red tape and expenses.

With a health insurance card in hand, veterans could visit health providers, hospitals and emergency rooms near where they live. They could have the same family physician as their spouses. They could go to any counselor, pharmacy or physical therapist they choose. They wouldn't have to drive in a snowstorm from rural Illinois to a VA hospital in Indianapolis.

The VA system, which serves about 9 million people, also doesn't make sense for the roughly 320 million nonveteran Americans who cannot access its facilities and expertise.

You may live right down the street from a VA hospital. Your taxes fund it. It may provide excellent care. But you’re likely among the 97% of Americans who can’t use it.

Sanders also wants to beef up the workforce at the VA, which already employs nearly 15,000 doctors and 61,000 nurses. That is easier said than done. Where would those workers come from? Thousands of new professionals are not going to miraculously appear out of thin air.

The federal government will invariably siphon many of them from the private sector, where they are already in short supply. When surgeons, psychiatrists, nurses and social workers become government employees with the VA, they abandon the private health care system the rest of us rely on.

In addition, Sanders wants to expand health insurance access to members of the National Guard and provide veterans with dental care — an important and often overlooked part of health care.

But it does not make sense to run a parallel health care system and use billions of taxpayer dollars to maintain aging facilities and pay health professionals available to only a small segment of the population.

Advocates for VA health care say it can better develop expertise in areas such as PTSD, brain injuries and amputations and deliver care tailored to veterans' needs. But dollars saved by eliminating the VA health care system could go to helping the private sector develop specialized services for veterans.

Sanders certainly has good intentions: “We may argue in a democracy about the wisdom of this war or that war, but I hope there is no disagreement that the men and women who put their lives on the line doing their duty defending our country deserve the best quality care we can provide them,” he told Iowans.

They do deserve the best care. And much of it exists in hospitals, universities and numerous facilities throughout the private sector. With government-funded health insurance, veterans could access all of it.

Des Moines Register

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