VA Hospitals Have a Bad Reputation
For anyone who comes from a military family it is common knowledge that going to a VA hospital can be risky business and is at a minimum highly frustrating. But the VA system has made a number of improvements over the years since my parent's and grand parent's generations served and were cared for by the VA Health Care system. One of my healthcare providers challenged me recently that she too gets frustrated with her healthcare providers when they provide poor service and that was to be expected with any large institution. Maybe she's right, but don't we owe it to our veteran community to do better?
The VA Healthcare system has certainly received bad press in recent years for its wait times for patients. Much of that bad press helped pus forward the VA's Community Care Network (CCN) which has made strides in reducing wait times. However, to get referred out to a CCN partner you must at least have a Primary Care Provider (PCP). When I looked at the VA's Wait Times Website I found a very large discrepancy between facilities. Cobb County VA Clinic had an average wait time of 94 days for new patients to be seen by a PCP while the Tucker VA Clinic had an average wait time of only 10 days.
The Joseph Maxwell Cleland Atlanta VA Medical Center itself had an average wait time of 42 days.
If we compare this to the averages found in a 2022 study by AMN Health of average wait times that indicate a wait of 16 days on average for a medical evaluation with family health we can safely say that that the VA Healthcare system in Atlanta is not keeping pace.
What About Quality?
Wait times are one thing but what about the institutions quality? Military Media ran a piece on VA Hospitals and how they stack up to their non-VA counterparts in New England so I thought I would see what the results would look like in the Atlanta area using the same Medicare comparison tool. Unfortunately, the results were not what you might hope for. The Joseph Maxwell Cleland Atlanta VA Hospital ranked 12th overall in the Atlanta Metro Area. They not only scored lower than many of the local hospitals but ranked well below the national and state wide averages o nearly ever category assessed.
Some of these figures were startling even to me. For example, only 23% of patients received appropriate care for severe sepsis compared to a national average of 58% and a statewide average of 56%. Or, that only 45% of healthcare workers had received influenza shots compared to state and national averages of 80%.
Of general concern was the sheer number of categories that the VA system simply didn't have or provide enough data for comparison on.
What Can You Do To Get Better Healthcare as a Veteran?
While the VA certainly isn't perfect and its hospitals and clinics vary greatly from state to state and system to system, one thing they do get right is that they provide us as veterans access to healthcare at a reduced price or all together free in some cases. For example, under current rules a veteran with at least a 50% disability rating can get free healthcare through the VA. That's not just for your service connected disabilities. If you have service connected disabilities those are always treated for free even if your total disability rating falls short of the 50% mark. It is ultimately up to us to engage with that system to get the care we have earned as part of our service to this country.
We also need to be unapologetic champions for the quality of our healthcare. On a few occasions I have gone to my VA's patient advocate department when I felt mistreated or that my healthcare was being undermined. Each time I was given a new healthcare provider nearly immediately. I know of no other healthcare system that provides alternative doctors that fast.
Finally, I like to encourage veterans to utilize private healthcare if they have access to it through an employer sponsored plan. I like to call this approach a hybrid care model. For example, a veteran may have a PCP at a private clinic as well as one through the VA. This gives the veteran the ability to get a second opinion and have a broader set of doctors to choose from while paying lower rates than they otherwise would. This flexibility allows a veteran to pick and choose the best of both systems so they can optimize outcomes for themselves.