The Best Care Anywhere: Ten Years Ago, Veterans Hospitals Were Dangerous, Dirty, and Scandal-Ridden. Today, They're Producing the Highest Quality Care in the Country. Their Turnaround Points the Way toward Solving America's Health-Care Crisis

By Longman, Phillip | The Washington Monthly, January-February 2005 | Go to article overview

The Best Care Anywhere: Ten Years Ago, Veterans Hospitals Were Dangerous, Dirty, and Scandal-Ridden. Today, They're Producing the Highest Quality Care in the Country. Their Turnaround Points the Way toward Solving America's Health-Care Crisis


Longman, Phillip, The Washington Monthly


Quick. When you read "veterans hospital," what comes to mind? Maybe you recall the headlines from a dozen years ago about the three decomposed bodies found near a veterans medical center in Salem, Va. Two turned out to be the remains of patients who had wandered off months before. The other body had been resting in place for more than 15 years. The Veterans Health Administration (VHA) admitted that its search for the missing patients had been "cursory."

Or maybe you recall images from movies Fake Barn on the Fourth of July, in which Tom Cruise plays a wounded Vietnam vet who becomes radicalized by his shabby treatment in a crumbling, rat-infested veterans hospital in the Bronx. Sample dialogue: "This place is a fuckin' slum!"

By the mid-1990s, the reputation of veterans hospitals had sunk so low that conservatives routinely used their example as a kind of reductio ad absurdum critique of any move toward "socialized medicine." Here, for instance, is Jarret B. Wollstein, a right-wing activist/author, railing against the Clinton health-care plan in 1994: "To see the future of health care in America for you and your children under Clinton's plan," Wollstein warned, "just visit any Veterans Administration hospital. You'll find filthy conditions, shortages of everything, and treatment bordering on barbarism."

And so it goes today. If the debate is over health-care reform, it won't be long before some free-market conservative will jump up and say that the sorry shape of the nation's veterans hospitals just proves what happens when government gets into the health-care business. And if he's a true believer, he'll then probably go on to suggest, quoting William Satire and other free marketers, that the government should just shut down the whole miserable system and provide veterans with health-care vouchers.

Yet here's a curious fact that few conservatives or liberals know. Who do you think receives higher-quality health care. Medicare patients who are free to pick their own doctors and specialists? Or aging veterans stuck in those presumably filthy VA hospitals with their antiquated equipment, uncaring administrators, and incompetent staff?. An answer came in 2003, when the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine published a study that compared veterans health facilities on 11 measures of quality with fee-for-service Medicare. On all 11 measures, the quality of care in veterans facilities proved to be "significantly better."

Here's another curious fact. The Annals of Internal Medicine recently published a study that compared veterans health facilities with commercial managed-care systems in their treatment of diabetes patients. In seven out of seven measures of quality, the VA provided better care.

It gets stranger. Pushed by large employers who are eager to know what they are buying when they purchase health care for their employees, an outfit called the National Committee for Quality Assurance today ranks health-care plans on 17 different performance measures. These include how well the plans manage high blood pressure or how precisely they adhere to standard protocols of evidence-based medicine such as prescribing beta blockers for patients recovering from a heart attack. Winning NCQA's seal of approval is the gold standard in the health-care industry. And who do you suppose this year's winner is: Johns Hopkins? Mayo Clinic? Massachusetts General? Nope. In every single category, the VHA system outperforms the highest rated non-VHA hospitals.

Not convinced? Consider what vets themselves think. Sure, it's not hard to find vets who complain about difficulties in establishing eligibility. Many are outraged that the Bush administration has decided to deny previously promised health-care benefits to veterans who don't have service-related illnesses or who can't meet a strict means test. Yet these grievances are about access to the system, not about the quality of care received by those who get in.

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