What the VA Scandal Tells Us About Government Health Care – Robert Murphy

VA Medical Center

By Robert MurphyLibertyChat.com

The scandal over the Phoenix VA hospitals continues to grow, with President Obama calling the affair “intolerable” and “disgraceful.” As this USA Today timeline indicates, the controversy involves Dr. Katherine Mitchell, a Veterans Affairs emergency-room physician, who is now a whistleblower and claims that there was serious mismanagement and a cover-up of wait times for veterans to receive care in the Phoenix system. In addition, Dr. Sam Foote, a doctor of internal medicine at the Phoenix VA, alleged that “purported successes in reducing wait times stem from manipulation of data, and that vets are dying while awaiting appointments for medical care.”

This scandal is very awkward for today’s progressives, since they have often held up the VA as a great example of how government-run health care can work. (The most embarrassing man in their camp on this issue—as usual—is Paul Krugman.) I was wondering just how in the world the supporters of ObamaCare would react to the VA scandal. So far it’s been crickets at Krugman’s blog, but Kevin Drum at Mother Jones has at least tried to do some damage control. Yet as we go through his post, we’ll see the fundamental problem with government health care. Here’s Drum, giving a list of bullet points as to why Fox News is getting this story wrong:


  • During the Clinton administration, the performance of the VHA was revolutionized under Kenneth Kizer. The old VHA of Born on the 4th of July fame was turned into a top-notch health care provider that garnered great reviews from vets and bipartisan praise on Capitol Hill. The best account of this is Phil Longman’s 2005 article, “Best Care Anywhere.”
  • In 1999, Republicans decided to play dumb political games with Kizer’s reappointment. Eventually, with the handwriting on the wall, he chose to leave the VHA.
  • Under the Bush administration, some of the VHA’s old problems started to re-emerge, most likely because it no longer had either presidential attention or a great administrator. As early as 2002—before the Afghanistan and Iraq wars made things even worse—claims-processing time skyrocketed from 166 days to 224 days.
  • Under the Obama administration, the patient load of the VHA has increased by over a million. Partly this is because of the large number of combat vets returning from the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, and partly it’s because Obama kept his promise to expand access to the VHA.

  • The most sensational charge against the VHA is that 40 or more vets died while they were waiting for appointments at the VA facilities in Phoenix. But so far there’s no evidence of that. The inspector general investigating the VHA testified last week that of the 17 cases they’ve looked at so far, they haven’t found any incidents of a patient death caused by excessive wait times.

Look at what Drum is saying here. Even on his own terms, he admits that the VA system used to be awful—hence the reference to the Tom Cruise movie. Then, so long as there was a point man in the federal government committed to cleaning up the system, it worked. But alas, the moment that person left, the system went to hell again. Even under Obama, as the demands put on the system increased, wait times obviously went way up. But hey, as far as we know, that doctor down in Phoenix could be lying when he says lots of patients have died waiting for care. So maybe the only real scandal here is that the Phoenix VA staff deliberately falsified their records in order to minimize reported delays in treatment.

Folks, this isn’t a good way to deliver health care. Imagine that your food or shelter were dependent on Democrats being in the White House. Would that sound like a good idea? Would you feel safe in that environment?

One of the main virtues of a decentralized market economy is that no one person has the power to kill you. If you don’t get along with your boss, you can quit and work for somebody else—or start your own business. If you don’t like your butcher, you can buy your meat somewhere else. And in a genuinely free market, if you didn’t like the service you were getting from one doctor or hospital, it would be easy to take your business elsewhere.

The abysmal track record of the VA actually overstates how well people will be treated under a “Single Payer” system—the kind that guys like Paul Krugman think would be even preferable to ObamaCare. You would normally expect government officials to take care of their enforcers, and keep the military happy by providing quality care for veterans, not out of the goodness of their hearts but out of power politics. If this is how the federal government treats Americans who are willing to kill for it, how much tender loving care will the feds provide to people who, say, make a career out of criticizing Uncle Sam? Will they be at the top of the list to receive organ transplants or MRIs?




3 thoughts on “What the VA Scandal Tells Us About Government Health Care – Robert Murphy

  • May 26, 2014 at 1:57 pm

    If you have seen the C-SPAN coverage, you will notice the difference in posturing between that of the American Legion on the one hand, and the Vetrans of Foreign Wars and the Disabled American Veterans. The spokeman for DAV was particularly impressive. There is than meets the eye going on here, with the AL having an agenda not readily apparent. Who can deny the problems the VA had (and will always have), but this particular scandal may be part of a Republican strategy for winning in 2016.

  • Pingback: Potpourri

  • May 24, 2014 at 1:17 am

    You omitted what to my mind was the most compelling bullet point in Kevin Drum’s piece, which was that satisfaction rates for VA healthcare is higher than satisfaction rates for private hospitals.

    By the way, you make it sound as if Drum attributes the entirety of the Va’s problems during the Bush administration to Kizer leaving, but he also cites lack of presidential attention.

    P.S. What’s the problem with your blog? It won’t load for me.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.