Ugh...the poor VA is terrible...
The consumer doesn't think so.
"Best Care Anywhere's" Longman was charged by "Fortune" magazine with finding the best examples of U.S. health care management. When Longman asked experts for suggestions on where to look, he couldn't believe what he kept hearing - look at the government-run Veterans Administration system, the largest integrated health care system in the U.S. (1,556 locations). This contradicted all he thought he knew about economics and government, yet was consistently backed up by prestigious and unbiased studies. In 2003 the New England Journal of Medicine published a study comparing V.A. facilities with fee-for-service Medicare on 11 measures of quality - the V.A. proved better on all.
In 2004 the Annals of Internal Medicine compared the V.A. with commercial systems in care of diabetes - the V.A. provided better care in all 7 measures. Similarly, A RAND study found the V.A. outperformed other sectors in all 294 measures. The National Commission for Quality Assurance also found the V.A. outperformed the highest-rated non-V.A. hospitals. And for 6 consecutive years the V.A. received the highest consumer satisfaction ratings of any health care system.
What about costs - surely a government-run operation would be much more expensive. Actually, the V.A.'s average expenditure/patient in 2004 was $5,562, vs. a national average $6,280 - including those who never saw a doctor during the year. Further, the V.A.'s patient population was older (half over age 65), more diabetic (one in five has diabetes, compared with one in fourteen in the general population), and greater incidences of most all chronic diseases.
How does the V.A. do it? Five keys: 1)Most of its doctors have faculty appointments with academic hospitals. 2)It's patients are enrolled for life - providing preventive care financial incentives that are lacking in the private sector where patients change plans regularly. 3)V.A. doctors are salaried, with no financial incentive to provide unneeded (and possibly harmful) care. 4)It's having enthusiastically developed internally and adopted modern information technology that helps identify best practices, prevent medication errors, assist diagnoses, and ensure appropriate care and follow-up. 5)The "Kizer Revolution" (it's Clinton-era director) cemented a fail-safing quality emphasis and a data-driven management focus.
Finally, Longmore also points out another perverse incentive for higher costs and lower quality that exists outside the V.A., using an experiment at Duke University. In 1995 its medical center offered an integrated program for congestive heart failure that included following up with patients and sharing data among doctors to identify best practices. The result was a 37% drop in revenues from fewer admits and complications. Similar results were found in Utah involving pneumonia.
Addendum from Wall St. Journal, 10/27/09: The VA's computer system also helps monitor patient care at home, especially for people with complex, chronic illnesses. The VA gives those patients special gadgets free of charge to measure weight, heart rates, blood pressure and other conditions, and the daily results are automatically transmitted into the VA's medical-record system. If the numbers exceed target levels, a nurse is notified. The VA says its in-home monitoring program has about 40,000 patients enrolled and has reduced hospital admissions by 25% and length of hospital stay by 20%. Also the system's automated reminders have boosted performance - eg. the percent of patients receiving a flu vaccine rose to 83% last year from 27% in 1995, colon-cancer screenings increased to 84% from 34% during the same period.
Bottom Line: As the debate rages over improving health care quality and reducing costs, we are fortunate to have Longmore's insightful and fact-filled "Best Care Anywhere" inform thinking. On the other hand, I'm wondering "Why hasn't our Indian Health Services taken the same enlightened path," and "Why did "Fortune" magazine kill Longmore's original article, even though it contradicted their assumptions about the free-market?"
I've got Tricare and Medicare besides VA eligibility and I prefer to use VA, it is more convenient, more efficient, shows more patient concern and much easier to get an appointment.