Bringing the Battlefield Home

Posted: Jan 25, 2008 12:07 PM
Bringing the Battlefield Home

            Recently, a colleague discovered he had kidney stones. He was diagnosed on a Sunday. On Wednesday doctors tried unsuccessfully to break them up with sound waves. On Thursday they used lasers. Because of complications, the doctors had to put in a stent and wait a week before finally breaking up the stones seven days later.

Compare that with the experience an Iraq/Afghanistan war vet had in 2003. He waited six weeks to have his kidney stone removed at a VA hospital. No stent. No speedy, state-of-the-art procedures. Just week after week of extreme pain.

The difference? The first man had private health insurance, while the other depended on a government-run, single-payer health system. Socialized health care doesn’t work, and the VA system proves that.

Last year, for example, The Washington Post featured a series about the failures of the VA system. At the Walter Reed medical complex, “signs of neglect are everywhere: mouse droppings, belly-up cockroaches, stained carpets, cheap mattresses,” reported Dana Priest and Anne Hull. Outpatients, they wrote, often “encounter a messy bureaucratic battlefield nearly as chaotic as the real battlefields they faced overseas.”

This is distressing; our vets deserve the best possible care. But it’s hardly surprising. The government can’t efficiently run a railroad (Amtrak loses billions each year) or guarantee safe roads and bridges (I-35W). Why would we expect it to be able to operate hospitals?

Besides, we already know the single-payer model used by the VA doesn’t work. Our allies Canada and Britain both have nationalized health care systems, and both are infamous for their poor care and long waiting lists. It’s folly to expect a process that fails everywhere else in the world to somehow, magically, succeed here.

This isn’t to say that our military medical professionals don’t excel. On the contrary -- the military boasts the world’s most skilled doctors and nurses, and they’re doing a marvelous job helping vets survive and recover.

The survival rate for warriors wounded in Iraq is 90 percent, better than any earlier war and a full 10 percentage points higher than the survival rate in the 1991 Gulf War. But the problem is administration. Wounded vets often find themselves tied up in red tape. “We don’t know what to do,” Marine Sgt. Ryan Groves told the Post. “The people who are supposed to know don’t have the answers. It’s a nonstop process of stalling.”

The irony is that our military won the Cold War, defeating the Soviet Union without even firing a shot. Yet our vets ended up with a Soviet-style medical system -- one run by the government with the same efficiency that makes the DMV infamous.

The solution: Introduce competition into the process.

One way to do that is to enroll vets in the Federal Employees Health Benefit Program, the same system that civilian employees enjoy. FEHBP offers dozens of plans, from fee-for-service and health savings accounts to preferred provider organizations and health maintenance organizations. Vets could choose a plan that worked for them and their families, and would gain control over their health care.

Failing that, Washington could agree to give each veteran a set amount of money to buy health insurance. This would create a market, motivating companies to put together attractive packages to win new customers. Meanwhile, vets would become engaged partners in their health care, instead of being forced to wait on bureaucrats to serve them.

Healthcare isn’t the only area where the government is letting some veterans down. A few years ago, Vietnam vet Fred Salanti discovered that the cremated remains of many veterans were sitting on shelves in funeral homes unburied. He founded the Missing in America Project to find these remains and give them a proper burial.

So far the project has visited 170 funeral homes and located the remains of 4,664 people, roughly 100 of whom have since been identified as veterans and buried properly. The American Legion is supporting MIAP in this mission. Together they’re bringing honor to many forgotten veterans, thereby accomplishing something that, if left to the government, would never happen.

Sadly, American veterans haven’t always been treated with the respect they deserve. Some have waited, unburied, for the honors they earned. Others wait for a creaky bureaucracy to deliver the health care they need.

If we start moving away from socialized medicine and start promoting individual control, we can help wounded vets live longer, better lives. They’ve more than earned that.