While it is not a secret that the Veteran’s Affairs hospital system has had inefficiencies for many years, the recent spotlight on veterans’ long wait times for basic medical attention has made headlines for good reason.
Long wait times are dangerous and extremely costly, resulting in unnecessary emergency room use, advancement of medical illness, and possibly even death, when early intervention would have been life and cost saving. In short, we are failing our veterans.
The confirmation of former Procter & Gamble chairman Robert McDonald to lead the VA is a step in the right direction. The bureaucratic entanglement from which the VA has suffered will potentially benefit from a leader with private industry experience. The bipartisan legislation recently enacted by Congress is another key step and will help ensure the VA has critical additional resources to eventually hire more personnel and open new facilities. But we still need more.
Delivering high-quality care for veterans will mean going beyond our national status quo, because inefficiency and waste are unfortunately part of the fabric of U.S. health care. Just consider appointment timing.
Nationwide, a patient faces an average of an 18-day wait for a doctor’s appointment. If the need for care is acute, that delay of preventative care means that a problem that could have been prevented yesterday is today out of control.
These problems are not novel. We have seen advances in health care technology making sense of these issues. Companies offering online appointment scheduling, patient adherence apps, telemedicine, and more are already easing the strain such that some Americans can get the care they need when they need it. In these models, we have seen tools for strengthening and modernizing our health care infrastructure being polished, tested, and refined by real-world patient use. The VA could be an easy adaptor given the VA electronic medical record system was one of the first in the country and continues to be the largest integrated system. We are encouraged that the bipartisan legislation enacted by Congress takes this practical approach and sets up a task force to look at existing solutions that can be deployed at the VA.
The message is that Veterans need health care now, which means the VA needs infrastructural improvements yesterday. There is no valor in reinventing the wheel when solutions already exist. Veterans, and frankly all Americans, cannot afford the delay. Models that can be implemented quickly and efficiently already exist. We should, and we must, avail ourselves of those opportunities. These options are ready for adoption and will help ensure our veterans are able to quickly access the care they deserve.
Tom Daschle is a former Senate majority leader and a senior policy adviser at DLA Piper. Bill Frist is a former Senate majority leader and a cardiothoracic transplant surgeon.