VA's Health System: Some Love It, Some Hate It

Nearly 30 VA facilities are accused of falsifying statistics on how long veterans must wait for care. President Obama said the problems go back decades, but most veterans are satisfied with the care.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne. Good morning.

There are now more than two dozen VA health facilities around the country under investigation. They're accused of falsifying statistics on how long veterans must wait to get care. And there are charges that some veterans died while waiting to receive that care.

President Obama addressed the issue yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I know that people are angry and want swift reckoning. I sympathize with that, but we have to let investigators do their job and get to bottom of what happened. Our veterans deserve to know the facts. Their families deserve to know the facts. Once we know the facts, I assure you, if there is misconduct it, will be punished.

MONTAGNE: The president said many problems at the Department of Veterans Affairs go back decades. He also said that most veterans who use the VA are satisfied with their care.

NPR's Quil Lawrence looks at how both those statements can be true.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Don't even ask Rachel Stokes about the VA. She did two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan.

RACHEL STOKES: I hate the VA.

LAWRENCE: Then there's Tom Russell. He was a flight surgeon on an aircraft carrier in Vietnam.

TOM RUSSELL: In my opinion, the VA is a very good system.

LAWRENCE: The VA is a system people both love and hate. The biggest difference may be who is already getting care in the system and who's still fighting to get that care. Tom Russell, now 73, has Multiple Myeloma. His visits to the VA hospital in San Francisco are among the 85 million appointments handled by the department each year.

The system's defenders say that given its size and compared to health care in the rest of the country, the VA does pretty well. Russell says VA brings lots of advantages. All his medical records are on an electronic system. He can get care in different states with no hassle.

RUSSELL: And bear in mind, I could go anywhere, because I have Medicare. I have good private insurance, and I know lots of doctors and I could go back to my old hospital, but I prefer to go to the VA, to be very frank.

LAWRENCE: Tom Russell enjoys what vets groups say is the best part of the VA: the care itself.

Rachel Stokes is dealing with the worst part: the red tape. She came home with from her three deployments with four herniated discs and needing two knee reconstructions.

STOKES: I got out March of 2012. I didn't start receiving my benefits until last June, and then they didn't have me dependents on my claim, so I had to resubmit the same documentation that they already had in the system.

LAWRENCE: And she could go on. She'd rather pay and go outside the system than go down to the VA.

These kind of bureaucratic ordeals are at the heart of the current controversy. It involves people either waiting to get their claims approved or waiting to get an appointment with a doctor.

In the past month, two dozen VA medical centers have come under investigation for faking their wait times, making it seem that they were seeing most of their patients in less than 14 days.

VA Secretary Eric Shinseki is under fire. Some veterans groups and members of Congress are calling for him to step down. For now, President Obama is standing by Shinseki, until the investigations are done. But the system may just not be equipped to handle the demand.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

OBAMA: We have to find out how can we realistically cut some of these wait times. There has been a large influx of new veterans coming in. We've got a population of veterans that is also aging as part of baby boom population. And we've got to make sure that the scheduling system, the access to the system, that all those things are in synch.

LAWRENCE: Right now, they're not in sync. According to the VA, since 2011, primary care visits have jumped 50 percent, while the number of primary physicians has only climbed 9 percent.

But these are all stats from the VA, which is now investigating whether its statistics on wait times are being cooked.

Quil Lawrence, NPR News.

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