More Fake News about VA Hospitals

This time, the hapless New York Times is the culprit.

Donald Trump met with the heads of several monopolistic private health care corporations in Palm Beach on Wednesday. Bloomberg reports that “A person close to Marvel Entertainment CEO Ike Perlmutter said he also participated.” Trump was soliciting their advice on whether he should force the Veterans Health Administration (VA) to outsource more of the care of our nation’s veterans to monopolistic health care corporations. The comic book executive at least had no apparent conflicts of interests.

America’s major veterans groups, including the American Legion, Vietnam Veterans of America, and Paralyzed Veterans of America, which all strenuously oppose any moves to privatize the VA, were not invited. Stay tuned for the rest of the story.

But meanwhile, let’s just dwell for a second on how we got here before it’s too late. In the New York Times‘ story about the meeting, reporter Michael D. Shear offered this background: “The Department of Veterans Affairs has struggled to provide timely care to many veterans….News reports in 2014 said that dozens of veterans had died while waiting for care at a V.A. hospital in Phoenix.”

Here we have the New York Times once again mindlessly repeating a devastatingly effective piece of fake news that may yet lead to the dismantling of the VA. It was put in motion by the Republican-controlled House Veterans Affairs Committee during hearings it staged over the summer of 2014. The committee’s chairman, Rep. Jeff Miller, claimed to have uncovered as many as 40 veterans who had died while waiting for care at the Phoenix VA, a claim that was endlessly repeated in the press and that did enormous damage to the image of the VA with the American people.

Yet, as we reported last Spring, this statistic has no more meaning than saying that dozens of people die every day while waiting for an appointment to see their tax accountant or lawyer. Subsequent investigation (pdf) found that six, not forty, patients had experienced “clinically significant delays,” and in not a single case was there evidence that these patients died as a result. Veterans listed on waiting lists usually turned out be waiting for a routine visit with a primary care doc or were already under the care of a VA specialist.

Since 2014, further investigations have shown that there is no generalized problem with wait times at the VA–or at least nothing worse than that typically found among private health care providers. A report by the RAND corporation recently found that 92 percent of established primary care patients at the VA are able to have an appointment within two weeks. The latest VHA data show that the average wait time to see a primary care physician is 5.77 days. For an an appointment with a mental health professional the average wait is 4.5 days.

By point of comparison, a study conducted in 15 major medical markets found that non-VA patients seeking an appointment with an a family physician have to wait an average 19.5 days. Another study by the RAND Corporation has found that, given certain reasonable assumptions, “wait times at the VA for new patient primary and specialty care are shorter than wait times reported in focused studies of the private sector.”

The VA has plenty of challenges, to be sure, but in study after study it is shown to be generally at least as good, and on most metrics better than the rest of the health care system, as was just recently reconfirmed by this major survey of the peer-reviewed literature on health care quality. Wouldn’t it be nice if the Times would share that non-fake news with its readers as it chronicles the Trump administration’s war on veterans?

Phillip Longman

Phillip Longman is senior editor at the Washington Monthly and the policy director at the Open Markets Institute.