The phenomenon of explanatory journalism debuted recently to high hopes. Hopes which were dashed when it became clear much of that industry was dedicated to providing ideologically simpatico readers with bullet points designed to help them win arguments for the home team rather than dispassionate fact-finding missions.
The latest example of that phenomenon comes from Vox’s German Lopez. On Wednesday, the Ezra Klein-founded explainer site reported at 1:25 p.m. on the grizzly results of an independent investigation into one Department of Veterans Affairs-run hospital and the scandalous falsifying of the true wait times that American service personnel faced. A second report from Lopez, published at 3 p.m., focuses entirely on laying out “the counterargument” to Republicans who want to “privatize the VA.” Priorities!
Lopez cites precisely one Republican — Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) — who wrote in the Wall Street Journal that excessive wait times, allegedly leading to substandard care and even premature death, are “unacceptable.” A private option, he wrote, needs to be provided for these vets.
Such impertinence cannot stand. Lopez’s initial defense of the VA actually centers on a defense of the bureaucracy. Privatization, he wrote, would be opposed by those for whom the ever-expanding VA budget is of existential importance. “If veterans opted to use private facilities instead of those the VA operates, federal officials could decide that the public system isn’t covering as many patients and therefore doesn’t need as much money,” Lopez notes.
The VA may not have all the funding it wants, but it is certainly not strapped for cash. The agency’s budget increased by one-third, $47.8 billion in 2009 to $63.4 in 2014, over the last five years. It was the only agency in 2013 to avoid forced budget cuts as a result of sequestration. In that year alone, the VA reported $2 billion in waste and fraud. Over the last four years, the VA and the Department of Defense spent $1.3 billion to create a single electronic system of health-records that both agencies could share. That project was ultimately unsuccessful.
“This does not include billions of dollars wasted during the last three decades, including $2 billion spent on a failed upgrade to the DOD’s existing electronic health-records system,” NBC News reported.
After noting that members of Congress might consider actually reducing an ineffective agency’s budget once an effective alternative was in place, Vox’s Lopez turned toward the central issue: the quality of the care vets would receive at private facilities. Surveys suggest that vets like the care they receive at VA hospitals, but they are less than thrilled with the wait times. With deaths and suicides allegedly attributable to those delays in care, who can blame them?
Lopez asserted, however, that the wait times are not even that much worse from those at private sector hospitals. “An internal agency estimate, cited by [MSNBC.com reporter] Timothy Noah, puts the VA’s average wait time for non-urgent care at 21 days,” Lopez reported. “A 2014 survey, meanwhile, found the average wait time in the private sector to be 18.5 days.”
Given that the scandal surrounding the VA involves employees of that agency falsifying waiting times in order to appear more efficient, however, Lopez should probably exercise a bit more skepticism when repeating VA data.
“The average is much higher than the 24 days of waiting reported by Phoenix to the federal VA system,” Vox’s Lopez wrote just hours before his attack on privatization. In fact, according to the IG report, the true wait time for the Phoenix facility for primary care averaged at 115 days. With 26 VA facilities under investigation for similar practices, and with whistleblowers coming out from all corners to attack corner-cutting practices at VA hospitals, it is a safe bet that the 21-day figure will not hold up.
Finally, Lopez concedes that vets’ advocacy groups do support private care referrals for vets who fall through the cracks – a practice that has been part of VA procedure for some time and the expansion of which is part of the VA’s own reform plan. Even liberal icons like Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) have expressed interest in expanding private sector options in order to address the crisis of American service men and women dying.
“The VA today is a system worth saving,” a Veterans of Foreign Wars representative is quoted in Lopez’s closing paragraph, “not dismantling.” And it will never be dismantled because no one is suggesting it should be. Even the Reagan administration, which pursued an aggressive strategy of privatizing VA care and failed, never sought to dismantle the department entirely. But even against a straw man, Lopez’s “counterargument” falls flat given the scale of the preventable tragedy befalling America’s veterans.
Serving as a rapid response operation for partisan Democrats in order to effectively create a unified opposition to the Republican policy proposal of the moment seems to be the paramount aim over at Vox. Solutions to real problems -– problems like getting vets the care they need and are owed -– are, however, secondary to the cause.
[Image via Yuri Gripas / Reuters]
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