VA’s problems are endemic to all government-run healthcare systems

My experience with the medical care provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs was brief, minor and quite positive, but the system should still be completely overhauled.

I learned about the VA first-hand after a car accident in my early 20s. I had just finished my afternoon shift as an editorial clerk at the Mobile Register and was driving down Government Street on my way to an evening class at Spring Hill College. At the same time, a kid who had stolen his grandmother’s car was being chased down Water Street by several Prichard police cruisers.

I pulled into the intersection and unwittingly did my good deed for the day by stopping the suspect in his tracks: the kid plowed straight into my Dodge Dakota and the chase ended abruptly. The pain lingered, though, and after a few days I started thinking about seeing a doctor. There was just one problem: As with most healthy men in their early 20s, I didn’t have health insurance. Thankfully, I was a veteran and eligible for VA medical care. I was skeptical, though. I had always heard horror stories about VA hospitals and I only called for an appointment after the pain became unbearable.

I didn’t know what to expect when I arrived at the outpatient clinic on Spring Hill Avenue, but I recall blocking-off an entire day for the visit, expecting dozens of forms, long lines, and waits and hassles of every bureaucratic sort.

I was in-and-out in a flash. The clinic was clean and modern. The staff processed me quickly, and the doctor I saw was friendly and seemed genuinely sorry for my bad luck. I left with a treatment schedule, a bottle of medicine for the pain and several hours to spare. The quality of care was as good, or perhaps even better, than anything I’ve experienced since.

That was just a few years after President Bill Clinton’s failed attempt at government-run healthcare. I remember wondering, did we conservatives get it wrong? My free-market instincts still said “no,” and my later experience with socialized systems in the Middle East and Europe proved it. Socialized medicine is good when you need it, but it’s terrible when you really need it.

Conservative commentator Mark Steyn often talks about how his native Canada’s national health care system is wonderful for simple things like a broken arm (or in my case with the VA, a bruised shoulder and back), but it’s awful if you need kidney dialysis or cancer treatment. That’s when the efficient experience I had with the VA dissolves in the world of long lines, waiting lists, and, as we’ve recently learned, secret waiting lists for complicated and costly services and procedures.

“The essence of a government health care system – for people who have never lived under it and don’t know – is waiting, waiting, waiting,” Steyn said in 2009 during the initial Obamacare debate. “You wait for everything. You wait for years for operations that are routine in America.”

Steyn could have been describing what was occurring at VA hospitals around the country at that very moment, and what will continue to occur regardless of any reports, studies, leadership changes or good intentions that may happen in the wake of the current scandal. It’s a sad fact, but a certain level of failure is built into any government-run health care system.

That’s why Congress should take a serious look at Sen. John McCain’s proposal to break apart the VA system into two levels. Under his plan, the government would fund private coverage for all non-military related medical issues, while the VA would focus on its core competency – injuries and illnesses directly related to military service.

“Veterans have earned the right to choose where and when they get their medical care,” McCain said when discussing his legislation. “Continuing to require that they rely on a system riddled with dysfunction, while waiting for broader reform, is patently unacceptable.”

He’s right. The goal is to provide veterans with access to quality medical care. It shouldn’t matter whether that care comes from a government doctor or a private-sector doctor, just so long as it comes.

(J. Pepper Bryars grew up in Mobile and is now a writer living in Huntsville. Contact him at and