STILL THE BEST CARE ANYWHERE….Following the Washington Post’s series on problems at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, attention has started to focus on the VA hospital system as well. Is the VA system in bad shape too? Does this go to show that government-run healthcare is inherently disastrous?

Phil Longman wrote a piece for us about the VA system a couple of years ago, so I asked him about this. Here’s his answer:

Still the Best Care Anywhere
By Phillip Longman

It’s great to see the Post doing investigative reporting that actually changes the national conversation and improves people’s lives. But its series on the squalid conditions facing some veterans at Walter Reed Army Medical Center also has the potential to do harm unless the context of the story gets more play.

For example. True or false. Walter Reed is a VA hospital. The answer is false. The VA has nothing to do with Walter Reed, which is an Army hospital. That’s why the Secretary of the Army took the fall.

Yet as the author of a Washington Monthly cover story on the VA entitled “Best Care Anywhere” (and as the author of a forthcoming book by the same title) I know all too well that many people don’t get the distinction. My email box is overflowing with people wondering what I think of the VA now that it has been enveloped in scandal.

From this I conclude many Americans are taking the wrong lesson from the series. If you are left with the impression that Walter Reed is a VA hospital, then it’s just a short leap to concluding that the problems exposed there are indicative of the veterans health care system as a whole. And from that point, conservatives conclude that the whole story just goes to show what happens when the government gets into the health care business, while liberals use the same VA “scandal” to bash Bush.

Look, the VA has its problems. Because the White House and Congress won’t give it the funding to honor past promises to veterans, it now has to limit new enrollments to vets who have service-related illness or who can meet a strict means test. It’s also having trouble ramping up to meet the needs of the unexpectedly large number of young vets diagnosed with mental illness. But despite these challenges, the fact remains that the VA enjoys the highest rate of consumer satisfaction of any American health care system, public or private.

And outside experts agree that the VA deserves this high rating from its patients. A RAND Corporation study published in the The Annals of Internal Medicine concludes that the VA outperforms all other sectors of American health care in 294 measures of quality. In awarding the VA a top prize in 2006 for innovation in government, Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government gushed that “While the costs of healthcare continue to soar for most Americans, the VA is reducing costs, reducing errors, and becoming the model for what modern health care management and delivery should look like.”

Let’s hope the press doesn’t miss that “story behind the story.”