Suzanne Gordon

Suzanne Gordon is a journalist and co-editor of a Cornell University Press series on health-care work and policy issues. Her latest book is The Battle for Veterans' Healthcare: Dispatches from the Frontlines of Policy Making and Patient Care. She has won a Special Recognition Award from Disabled American Veterans for her writing on veterans' health issues, much of which has appeared in The American Prospect. Her website is www.suzannegordon.com.

Recent Articles

Despite Assurances, VA Secretary Pushes Toward Privatization

Secretary of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, David Shulkin, has pledged not to privatize the Veterans Health Administration (VHA). He understands, he says, that the VHA’s ability to provide care that, as studies document, is superior to those in the private sector is because veterans are treated in an integrated system that meets all their health needs. In testimony to the House Committee on Appropriations Veterans Oversight Hearing on May 3, Shulkin argued that unlike the private sector, the VHA “defines health far more broadly as physical, psychological, social, and economic.” Such a “unique national resource … often cannot be found in the private sector.”

In spite of this some of Secretary Shulkin’s recent decisions are very troubling. In March, Shulkin announced that the VHA would begin providing emergency mental health services to veterans previously ineligible for them. While that coverage is long overdue, the VA’s budget will likely push some already enrolled patients out of the VHA system and onto private providers. At the same time, Shulkin has proposed outsourcing optometry and audiology care to the private sector. In both cases, the changes threaten to jeopardize the kind of integrated services the VHA provides.

For years, the VHA has not been able to provide care to an estimated 500,000 veterans who have what are known as “other than honorable” (OTH) discharges (as documented by the San Francisco-based veterans service organization Swords to Plowshares). This is because a veteran’s eligibility for VA benefits is determined by the kind of discharge they receive when they leave the military. Only those with honorable, general, or medical discharges qualify. Those with “other than honorable discharges” or “dirty or bad papers” are disqualified because they committed acts that, while not worthy of a court marshal, led to their discharge. In reality, many of these vets went AWOL, got into fights, abused drugs or alcohol, or had discipline problems because they had PTSD, suffered from military sexual trauma, or other conditions arising from their military service.

Shulkin has announced that he wants to provide these veterans with emergency mental health services if they are in crisis, but his position on funding the coverage is worrisome. During his Appropriations Committee appearance, Shulkin was asked how he would pay for caring for hundreds of thousands of veterans who may not have had health-care services for years, even decades. “Maybe this doesn’t fit into the budget,” he replied. “But frankly I don’t care … I don’t want more money for this. We’re going to figure out a way to help these people and then connect them to community resources and get them help because this is the right thing to do.”

Serving these veterans is definitely the right thing to do. But creating what could be an unfunded mandate may be the wrong way to do it.  As Shulkin admitted during his testimony, the VHA is already short 1,500 mental health professionals needed to serve its currently enrolled patients. It will need more staff, and more inpatient psychiatric beds, and outpatient services to care for hundreds of thousands more.

“By definition, the veterans with OTH discharges need intensive mental health treatment because they will enter our system only when they are in crisis,” one VHA psychologist, who asked to remain anonymous, told the Prospect. “Many will have to be admitted to inpatient units and not every facility has enough beds. They will also need intensive treatment. We want to help them. But we need the staff and funds to do it well.”

Veterans with OTH discharges are also, by definition, ineligible to be referred to Choice care in the private sector, the psychologist explained. If the VHA does not have sufficient mental health staff to care for them, currently eligible veterans with mental health problems will face longer wait times or be pushed into Choice. They will thus be referred to private sector providers, who as numerous studies document, may not be trained to treat their complex, military related conditions. 

More recently, Shulkin has proposed yet another way he may seek to privatize VHA services.  Shulkin has told VA health-care directors from around the country that he wants to stop providing audiology and optometry services. “There are LensCrafters on every corner,” the secretary reportedly commented. Not only would this impact the optometry and audiology training the VHA provides to future clinicians, it would curtail two of the most popular and cost effective services the VHA delivers.

Hearing problems from toxic noise exposure are, in fact, a primary reason veterans seek VHA care. VHA optometrists do more than prescribe eyeglasses. Among other things, they evaluate whether patients with impaired vision are eligible for the impressive services offered through the VHA’s national system of 13 Blind Rehabilitation Centers.

And like all VHA employees, VHA audiologists and optometrists are trained to recognize if patients are at high risk for suicide. Would a technician at LensCrafters recognize that a veteran is seriously depressed and contemplating suicide if the patient (now customer) makes a stray comment indicating that he may not be around to collect his glasses?

Outsourcing public sector services and starving a public institution of necessary funding is one of the facilitators of privatization. The challenge facing Shulkin is how to respond to real needs and problems without setting in motion what Garry Augustine, executive director of the Disabled American Veterans, has called the “withering on the vine” of the VHA.

Congress Determined To Keep Private Sector In Vets’ Heath Care

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill mulling legislation to extend a program that lets veterans seek health care in the private sector have revived their longstanding complaints about long wait times for care at the Veterans Health Administration facilities. Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin and Dr. Baligh Yehia, the agency’s assistant under secretary, appeared before the House Committee on Veterans Affairs to testify on HR  369, a bill that would allow the Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act to continue past its sunset date of August 2017. 

In 2014, after revelations of wait-time problems at some Veterans Health Administration (VHA) facilities, Congress created the three-year Choice program allowing eligible veterans to seek care in the private sector if they live 40 miles from a VHA facility or have to wait for more than 30 days for an appointment. The bill would let the VHA spend what remains of the initial $10 billion (about $1 billion) allocated to Choice on care in the private sector. 

At the hearing earlier this month, House Committee on Veterans Affairs Chairman David “Phil” Roe, a Republican from Tennessee, complained of VHA wait times as long as 81 days. His comments and those made by other committee members suggest that congressional Republicans are determined to ignore any evidence that outsourcing care to private sector providers won’t do much to improve access to or coordination of care for veterans. They seemed unaware, for example, that wait times for private-sector health care are also a significant problem.

A 2014 study of wait times in American hospitals by health-care consulting firm Merritt Hawkins found long wait times and large disparities depending on location. In their just released 2017 study of wait times, the firm found that wait times in 15 metropolitan areas had increased by 30 percent since 2014. The average wait time for a new physician appointment was 24 days. In Boston, the average wait time to see a family physician was 109 days while in Albany patients had to wait 122 days. Some practices were entirely closed to new patients. In Boston patients who had to wait to see a cardiologist for 133 days in 2014 were now waiting as much as 365. In Houston the longest wait for a heart doctor jumped from 26 to 43 days. In Denver the longest wait to see a dermatologist went from 180 to 365 days while the shortest delays increased from one to seven.

A 2013 Commonwealth Fund report found that, of those adults surveyed, 26 percent reported six or more days for a primary care appointment when they were actually “sick or needing care.” As the report stated “Among the 11 nations studied in this report; Australia, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States—the U.S. ranks last, as it did in 2010, 2007, 2006, and 2004.”

The American Prospect recently reported on an independent assessment of VHA performance and access which concluded that, “Enrollees living more than 40 miles from VA facilities are much less likely to have geographic access to specialized services in non-VA hospitals … they are much less likely to have access to academic and teaching hospitals, the sites in which more complex care is offered.”

VHA wait times mirror those in the private sector for the same reason, a nationwide shortage of primary care providers and mental health professionals. Another contributing factor is that a government agency like the VHA is unable to offer market-rate salaries to healthcare professionals. In high-cost urban areas, health care professionals who want to work at the VHA are being offered thousands,  sometimes tens of thousands, more in the private sector. Not surprisingly, they follow the money. During the committee’s three-hour hearing, the issue of how low pay affected the quality of care never came up.

Committee members also considered another Choice Program problem, the coordination of care between VHA and private sector providers. Committee members offered a number of short-sighted observations, including defining care coordination exclusively in terms of giving private sector providers access to the VHA’s electronic medical records. 

Coordinating care for VHA patients who are, on average, sicker, older, poorer, and have more chronic mental health conditions than their counterparts in the private sector, requires far more than access to data. The VHA has pioneered a model of care coordination: Clinicians who work in the VHA system and often in the same work on multidisciplinary teams that have been trained to engage in face-to-face communication (sometimes via Telehealth) about the complex needs of their patients. 

As many studies have consistently documented, this is one of the main reasons that the VHA often delivers care that is superior to that treatment delivered by private sector providers. It is also why, as Dr. Shulkin testified, of the 1.2 million veterans who have had appointments through the Choice program in the private sector, only  5,000 of them chose to receive care only from private sector providers. 

Shulkin has  promised to unveil a new version of the program, what he likes to call Choice 2.0, sometime this fall. The future of the VHA will depend on how this program is configured  and if members of Congress are willing to consider whether private sector providers can actually deliver high quality care. The Choice program has not worked well because it was designed hastily and implemented far too rapidly. If the recent House hearing is any indication, Congress may be poised to repeat history with Choice 2.0.

This story has been updated to include newly released data on wait times.

VA Whistleblowers Beware: Tweeting Under Trump is No Two-Way Street`

A GOP bid to muzzle federal workers at the Veterans Health Administration will directly harm patients.

AP Photo/The El Paso Times,Rudy Gutierrez, File
AP Photo/The El Paso Times,Rudy Gutierrez, File An Army veteran makes her way to the radiology department at the Veterans Administration clinic adjacent to William Beaumont Army Medical Center, in El Paso, Texas. I n 2014, when a Veterans Health Administration doctor in Phoenix revealed that some VHA administrators had falsified data on wait times for patient appointments, congressional Republicans applauded his whistleblowing on behalf of veterans’ health care. Joined by many Democrats and, later, the bipartisan VA Commission on Care, Republicans said they supported a workplace culture that encourages federal employees to report agency problems, and speak up about misconduct by management. Now, however, President Trump and his GOP allies are singing a different tune. If their current efforts to muzzle employees who may disagree with VHA policies or practices succeed, both the quality of VHA care and the safety of its patients will suffer. That’s because concerned caregivers will be...

Hiring Freeze Spares Some at VA, But Shortages Still Loom

The Veterans Health Administration faces a staffing crisis, despite exemptions to President Trump’s recent federal hiring freeze. 

(Photo: AP/Elaine Thompson)
(Photo: AP/Elaine Thompson) Army veteran Michael Thrun and Navy veteran Thomas Barry wait for rides after treatment at the VA Puget Sound Medical Center in Seattle on March 30, 2015. A public outcry by veterans’ service organizations and lawmakers on Capitol Hill has spared certain core health-care personnel at the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) from the worst of President Trump’s blanket hiring freeze. But veterans who rely on the VA for benefits, pensions, compensation, and health care are still in big trouble. Chronic staff shortages and underfunding have been at the heart of a VA crisis centered on long wait times for care. Though doctors, nurses, and certain other essential health-care professionals and support staff have been exempted from the freeze, that still leaves the VA with a multitude of vacancies that will hamper its ability to deliver high-quality care. To be sure, the recent exemptions have led some who are worried about the VA’s future to breathe a sigh of...

For Once, Trump Makes the Right Cabinet Pick

Trump's pick to head the VA is actually someone who is both qualified and committed to the department's mission.

(Photo: AP/Evan Vucci)
(Photo: AP/Evan Vucci) David Shulkin, currently undersecretary for health at the Department of Veterans Affairs, leaves a meeting with President-elect Donald Trump in New York on January 9, 2017. I n a lobbying victory for veterans’ service organizations and their allies, President-elect Donald Trump has made an unusual cabinet pick. He’s named someone to head a federal agency who’s committed to its mission, highly qualified for the job, and has relevant past experience. That someone is David Shulkin, named by Trump to head the Department of Veterans Affairs. Before choosing Shulkin, who now serves as the VA’s undersecretary for health, Trump had flirted with some bad choices for the post, including veteran Pete Hegseth, former CEO of Concerned Veterans for America, a group funded by the billionaire Koch brothers; Sarah Palin, former governor of Alaska and mother of a veteran; and Delos “Toby” Cosgrove, vice chairperson of the Commission on Care and CEO of the Cleveland Clinic. All...

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