Fixing the VA mess

The first real time I spent around Sen. Johnny Isakson was as we rode through southeast Georgia one day during Congress’ recess in August 2009, a month renowned for the town-hall meetings at which angry Americans grilled elected officials about legislation already known by then as Obamacare.

As I recall, the topic of Obamacare came up at the Rotary Club in Glennville, and certainly as he and I traveled down U.S. 301. But the focus of that day was a field hearing of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs in Jesup.

There, Isakson heard testimony from Veterans Administration officials about their plans to open outpatient clinics in Hinesville and Brunswick. “We want to make sure that the service to our veterans (is) complete, and that in terms of health care, it is reachable, or within the reach of every single veteran,” he said that day.

All of which is to say Isakson is no Johnny-come-lately to the needs of veterans, which have been in the headlines since the story of fatally lengthy wait times and falsified records at a VA hospital in Phoenix broke last month.

“It’s a moral failing,” Isakson said of the scandal as we spoke by phone Wednesday. “To think that somebody would consciously come up with a false (document) to make themselves look good at the expense of veterans whose lives may depend on it, to get themselves a raise; it’s immoral.”

About two hours after we spoke, the Senate voted 93-3 to pass a VA reform bill Isakson co-sponsored (a similar version already passed the House). The bill included two “tremendously important things,” he said: greater authority for agency leadership to fire bad employees, and a measure to allow veterans to use private doctors if they live too far from VA facilities or wait times are lengthy.

“It’s become a culture that’s just corrupt,” Isakson said of the VA’s work force. “In the VA, if you screw up, and you know your punishment is to be transferred to a new job with the same pay, there’s not much of a financial incentive to perform better, or a financial disincentive to perform poorly.”

As for access to private doctors, the bill would allow veterans who live more than 40 miles from a VA facility to opt instead for a Tricare- or Medicare-approved provider closer to home. That option is also open to any vet who can’t get an appointment within a “reasonable time,” still to be determined by the VA.

I asked if he thought this change would eventually lead to totally privatizing VA health care. He didn’t.

“Some (war-related injuries) the VA does well because of the scale they deal with. They have the ability and the manpower to deal with the ailment, and the private sector doesn’t,” Isakson said, allowing that primary care, for example, may be different.

“In time, it may be that most veterans (health) services are done by private practitioners … and that’ll lessen the burden on the VA to deal with those injuries from war that are highly specialized,” he said. “But it’ll allow the veterans to make that choice with their feet and their minds.”

Beyond the new bill, Isakson praised the FBI’s decision to investigate the Phoenix hospital and said it’ll be up to Congress to keep closer tabs on the agency.

What followed that day in Jesup almost five years ago shows more oversight is certainly needed. The Brunswick office didn’t open for another year. The grand opening for a permanent clinic in Hinesville was held two days ago.