EDITORIAL: Heck bill a good start toward bigger VA reform

When the new Veterans Affairs hospital in North Las Vegas was being built, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said it would be “as pleasurable as any hospital can be.” Then-Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki said the medical center would give area veterans increased access to much-needed medical care.

Now, less than two years after the VA hospital opened, Sen. Reid says “it is a disgrace this hospital has been mismanaged,” and Mr. Shinseki has resigned in the wake of an agency-wide scandal in which VA employees rigged scheduling records to hide the months-long delays veterans face when seeking care — waits so long some veterans died before being seen. The North Las Vegas hospital, along with more than 100 other VA medical facilities, will have its scheduling practices reviewed because an audit uncovered scheduling irregularities.

In one case late last year, a 78-year-old blind veteran in agonizing pain was forced to wait six hours in the emergency room at the North Las Vegas VA hospital before being seen — and once seen she endured terrible treatment.

Since the hospital opened in August 2012, some forms of care simply have become unavailable due to frustrating bureaucracy. Before the hospital opened, the VA and the Air Force shared services at O’Callaghan Federal Hospital on Nellis Air Force Base, where veterans were promptly treated in a hospital wing. The opening of the North Las Vegas facility, however, required military medical professionals to obtain VA credentials — a process that takes nine months to a year. Many of them haven’t bothered with the lengthy, redundant process. As a result, veterans who need specific procedures that are unavailable in North Las Vegas run the risk of being sent to VA centers in California or Utah to receive care despite the presence of qualified specialists at O’Callaghan.

In response, Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., has proposed a bill that would cut the red tape and allow doctors at Nellis to treat veterans at the North Las Vegas medical center. As reported by the Review-Journal’s Steve Tetreault, the bill would require Veterans Affairs to accept the credentials of physicians who practice at O’Callaghan, as well as from doctors preparing to leave the military. Rep. Heck, himself a physician, cites vascular surgery and ophthalmology among specialties where doctors at O’Callaghan could immediately fill a gap in care.

Rep. Heck’s bill provides a common-sense, low-cost and timely improvement to a bad situation. VA officials in Southern Nevada have acknowledged that it can take up to six months for veterans to see an ophthalmologist for cataract surgery, and an agreement such as the one Rep. Heck is proposing would be extremely helpful for Las Vegas veterans, as well as veterans in other jurisdictions that are home to both VA and military base hospitals.

Rep. Heck’s bill is a step in the right direction, but the ultimate solution should be more drastic. The VA system doesn’t work. Instead of giving veterans access to care at military bases, why not give them access to any hospital or physician office of their choosing? All veterans should immediately receive a card that guarantees reimbursement for care at the facility of their choosing, and all VA facilities should be privatized.

Our veterans risked their lives to protect our freedoms. They deserve the best medical care available, and they deserve it now. No more waiting.