By Editorial Board Originally Appeared in The Ventura County Star
Ventura County veterans who rely on the Department of Veterans Affairs for medical care have received a triple dose of good news in the past two weeks, giving us renewed optimism that the VA might finally and permanently fix its longtime health care woes. If anyone deserves efficient, quality health care funded by taxpayers, it is those who have put their lives on the line to protect our nation.
We must caution, however, that the VA still has a long way to go toward achieving that goal on a consistent, nationwide basis. Veterans, their supporters and our elected officials in Washington must keep the pressure on for further improvement and reform.
The most encouraging news locally was a Star story April 20 reporting that veterans were waiting far less time to get an appointment at the VA clinic in Oxnard. A year ago, the clinic was among the worst in the nation for wait times.
The VA, with 1,500 hospitals and clinics across the nation, has been under a microscope since it was discovered in 2014 that as many as 40 veterans had died while waiting for appointments in Phoenix and that VA employees there had kept secret waiting lists hiding the long delays. That same year, delays in mental health care for Ventura County veterans led to a 2014 House subcommittee hearing in Camarillo.
In April 2016, only 67 percent of pending appointments at the Oxnard clinic were scheduled within the VA’s goal of 30 days — the worst rate among its 11 health facilities in the Greater Los Angeles area. A year later, the Oxnard rate had increased to 91 percent, The Star reported.
Existing patients seeking an appointment with a VA primary care provider in Oxnard waited an average of six days past the date they asked for, and new patients 16 days, according to the VA’s new online wait-time tracker. “For now, we’re good. I worry about staying that way,” Kim Evans, executive director of the Ventura County Military Collaborative, told The Star. “The complaints I used to hear, I’m not hearing.”
The long waits largely stemmed from a staffing shortage in Oxnard. The VA opened the new, larger clinic on Rose Avenue in December 2015, but its new contractor, STG International, sent only one doctor there at first. After pressure from Rep. Julia Brownley and others, staff was added and the clinic now has its full complement of six primary care providers.
While access to urgent care remains a challenge, and primary care waits of six and 16 days are still too long, they are well within the 30-day goal, and we agree with Rep. Brownley that it’s a solid step in the right direction for the Oxnard facility. The Westlake Village Democrat sits on the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs and deserves praise for her ongoing work and commitment to improving VA health care.
President Trump voiced a similar commitment to veterans during his campaign and last month took two actions to back up his talk. He signed a bill to extend the VA’s Choice Program, which allows veterans to seek care outside the VA network when they have to wait more than 30 days for an appointment or drive more than 40 miles to a facility. And on Thursday, he signed an executive order creating an Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection within the VA.
The president, in his proposed federal budget, also called for $78.9 billion in VA discretionary spending — a 6 percent increase over fiscal year 2017. But as a PBS NewsHour report pointed out last month, more money doesn’t necessarily mean better VA health care. Under President Obama, the VA’s annual budget rose 85 percent over eight years.
The VA spends nearly 57 percent of its money on mandatory, nondiscretionary programs like pensions, insurance and compensation for families of soldiers killed in action, PBS reported. Most of the remaining 43 percent is spent on health care. “The problem is too much of the money is being spent not on veterans’ health care, but on other institutional priorities like keeping open empty facilities that nobody uses,” Avik Roy, a health care policy adviser and president of the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity, told PBS.
These are fundamental policy issues we hope our president is willing to take on as part of his pledge to reform the VA. In the meantime, federal officials must ensure that clinics like Oxnard’s are wisely using the dollars they do have to provide timely, quality care. Our veterans deserve no less.