By Dr. Mercola
Veterans Affairs (VA) hospitals across the US are supposed to provide quality health care for veterans who have served the country.
As the population, and especially the veteran population, ages, there has been an influx of people needing care, including veterans from World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, not to mention younger generations who have fought in wars during the last 10 years.
Increasingly, VA hospitals are struggling to keep up with the need for care, but instead of coming up with solutions to ensure patients receive timely health care there are allegations of poor oversight, secret waiting lists, and even falsification and destruction of appointment records at several VA hospitals.
VA Hospitals Under Investigation, Officials Placed on Leave Over Inappropriate Scheduling
There are 151 VA hospitals, and 820 clinics, in the US. Each is required to keep records of how long each patient waits to be seen by a doctor so that the Department of Veterans Affairs can monitor and ensure that timely health care is being given.
Generally, a VA patient is required to be seen by a physician within 14 days of their request for care, and waiting times any longer than this must be documented. However, VA hospitals in North Carolina, Wyoming, Texas, Arizona, and Colorado are being investigated amid allegations that some patients waited months for care and, in some cases, the wait times were intentionally covered up. So far:
- In Durham, North Carolina, an employee came forward claiming that workers had falsified appointment records from 2009 to 2012. Four officials from the hospital have already been placed on leave while the delays in care are investigated.
- In Phoenix, Arizona, a retired physician said a local VA hospital had a secret wait list intended to hide delays in care. He claimed that up to 40 patients may have died because they didn’t receive timely medical care. Three executives have been placed on leave amid allegations of corruption and unnecessary deaths.
- In Wyoming, a VA employee was placed on leave following a leaked email in which he directed staff to “fix” the appointments system.1
- At the San Antonio, Texas VA hospital, workers scheduling appointments said they were “cooking the books” at their bosses’ requests in order to hide wait times of several weeks or months.2
The widespread allegations of misconduct and poor care have prompted some groups, including the American Legion, to call for VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to step down, but so far he has responded that he will take “swift and appropriate” action if the investigations find any wrongdoing has occurred.3
Are VA Hospitals Any Different from Private-Sector Hospitals?
VA hospitals and medical centers, which represent the largest health care system in the US, have long had a reputation for being the bottom-of-the-barrel for health care. In reality, customer-satisfaction surveys suggest that VA hospitals are on par with, if not better than, private-sector hospitals for patient satisfaction.4
Mortality rates are also similar, although VA hospitals have a longer average length of stay.5 Across the board, however, we see many of the same problems with health care at both VA hospitals and those in the private sector. For instance:
- The VA consistently gives executives cash bonuses, even in the midst of allegations of poor patient care and preventable deaths6
- The VA has been criticized for putting too much money toward administration at the expense of nursing and patient care. In one example, Dean Billik, former director of the VA in Charleston, South Carolina, allegedly spent $200,000 of taxpayer money to renovate his office and $1.8 million to renovate a building for his own offices after it had already been renovated for patient care7
- Medical errors and poor practice abound at both VA and private-sector hospitals. At the VA, recent high-profile cases include mismanagement of an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease, patient overdoses and suicides, and the reuse of disposable insulin pens that infected at least 18 veterans with hepatitis8
Major Health Care Problems Persist in All Hospitals, VA or Otherwise
There's no shortage of evidence that the US health care system is in need of urgent reform, for veterans and civilians alike. It can be argued that medical errors are a leading cause of death in the US—higher than heart disease, higher than cancer.
The latest review shows that about 1,000 people die EVERY DAY from hospital mistakes alone.9 This equates to four jumbo jets' worth of passengers every week, but the death toll is largely ignored. Types of errors include inappropriate medical treatments, hospital-acquired infections, unnecessary surgeries, adverse drug reactions, and operating on the wrong body part—or even on the wrong patient!
One in four hospital patients are harmed by preventable medical mistakes in the US, and 800,000 people die every year as a result. Of those 800,000, 250,000 die as a result of medication errors.
In short, the US does not have a health care system. We have a disease-management system overly reliant on expensive drugs and invasive surgeries. It's a system with a mission to maximize profits, as opposed to helping people maintain or regain their health.
The Affordable Health Care Act is likely to make matters worse rather than better, as the Act does not include any illness-prevention strategies. Nor does it contain any measures to rein in out-of-control health care costs related to overcharges. Instead, it expands an already flawed model of "care" that is one of the leading causes of both death and bankruptcy for Americans.
Even Non-Profit Hospitals Make Major Profits
Most people are aware that VA hospitals are funded with taxpayer money. But you may be under the mistaken impression that non-profit hospitals are somehow in the business of charity rather than profit. Don’t be misled, even non-profit hospitals are businesses interested in increasing their bottom line. For example, at Montefiore Medical Center, a large nonprofit hospital system in the Bronx, its chief executive has a salary of $4,065,000, the chief financial officer of the hospital makes $3,243,000, the executive vice president rakes in $2,220,000, and the head of the dental department makes a not-so-shabby $1,798,000 per year.
Similarly, 14 administrators at New York City’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center are paid over $500,000 a year, including six who make over $1 million. Most hospitals end up receiving just 35 percent of what they bill, yet they still manage to make tens of millions of dollars in operating profits each year. Some hospitals, including Sloan-Kettering and MD Anderson, who are tougher in their negotiations with insurance companies, end up getting around 50 percent of their total billings, which quite literally amounts to a fortune.
Stamford Hospital reported $63 million in operating profits in 2011, even though about half of their patient base is highly discounted Medicare and Medicaid patients. The actual revenue received was $495 million. As reported by journalist and author Steven Brill:
“…there is the jaw-dropping difference between those list prices and the hospitals’ costs, which enables these ostensibly nonprofit institutions to produce high profits even after all the discounts,” Brill writes. “...[N]o matter how steep the discounts, the chargemaster prices are so high and so devoid of any calculation related to cost that the result is uniquely American: thousands of nonprofit institutions have morphed into high-profit, high-profile businesses that have the best of both worlds. They have become entities akin to low-risk, must-have public utilities that nonetheless pay their operators as if they were high-risk entrepreneurs.
As with the local electric company, customers must have the product and can’t go elsewhere to buy it. They are steered to a hospital by their insurance companies or doctors (whose practices may have a business alliance with the hospital or even be owned by it). Or they end up there because there isn’t any local competition. But unlike with the electric company, no regulator caps hospital profits.”
Stay Out of the Hospital by Taking Control of Your Health
If the idea of succumbing to a medical error, hospital-acquired infection, adverse drug reaction, surgery complication, or condition that progressed because you weren’t able to see a physician in a timely manner scares you, it should. Hundreds of thousands are killed by medical care itself, while others are walking around with far less than stellar health due to conventional treatments. Rates of chronic diseases are through the roof, and we're facing epidemics of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, depression, and other mental health problems, and too many others to list. As a whole, Americans are not healthy – they're tired, depressed, stressed out, and often in pain.
Out of sheer desperation, many people have taken their health into their own hands by abandoning this fatally flawed medical model and embracing natural modalities that address the cause of the disease, not merely the symptoms. It is through their many success stories that we can discern a clear way out of this flawed and outright deadly paradigm.
One of the reasons I am so passionate about sharing the information on this site about healthy eating, exercise, and stress management with you is because it can help keep you and your family OUT of the hospital. But if you do have to go there, you need to know how to play the game. My primary recommendation is to avoid hospitals unless it's an absolute emergency and you need life-saving medical attention. In such cases, it's advisable to bring a personal advocate -- a relative or friend who can speak up for you and ensure you're given proper care if you can't do so yourself. If you're having an elective medical procedure done, remember that this gives you greater leeway and personal choice—use it!
In the event you do need medical care, seek out a health care practitioner who will help you move toward complete wellness by helping you discover and understand the hidden causes of your health challenges, and create a customized and comprehensive – i.e. holistic – treatment plan for you. Knowing how to prevent disease so you can avoid hospitals in the first place is clearly your best bet, however. One of the best strategies toward that end is to optimize your diet, which you can learn how to do by reviewing my comprehensive Nutrition Plan.