Pearce’s plan to localize health services could reform VA

June 15, 2014 • Editorial

A few weeks ago as I was watching yet another report on the TV news about the unfolding scandal at the Veterans Administration in Phoenix, where a whistleblower has alleged that 40 veterans died while waiting for treatment, I couldn’t help but feel a little envious of Sharon Helman, direc[auth] tor of the Phoenix VA hospital.

In this news segment, a TV crew was stationed in the parking lot of the Phoenix hospital waiting for Helman to pull into the parking lot and then corner her on camera.

Helman pulled into the lot, but quickly turned around and sped off when she spotted the news crew.

I wasn’t envious of Helman because she got to be on camera, I’ve been on camera a few times myself. I was envious because of the car she was driving, a Mercedes-Benz roadster. Nice ride.

According to one car resale website, the market value for a 2013 roadster is around $53,000. I wish I could afford a car like that.

Helman, the flashy blonde in the flashy car, eventually drove back to the VA building and spoke to reporters in her office, giving typical bureaucratic “non answers” to all of their questions.

Helman, whose annual salary is $169,900, has been placed on administrative leave and was ordered to pay back a $9,345 incentive bonus, even as the hospital she oversees was being investigated over allegations that Arizona VA officials “cooked the books,” falsifying data on delays in doctor appointments that may have caused some veterans to die while awaiting care.

According to one news source, 12,549 bonuses totaling more than $8.7 million at the seven troubled VA facilities were paid out during the last three years. The report said Phoenix VA workers received $843,000.

If all of that is true, then why can’t that money be used for its original purpose — to fund health care for veterans? It is mind boggling to think that 15 percent of the total civilian workforce is employed by the VA.

All of this reminds me of actor Michael Douglas’ famous “greed is good” speech in the movie “Wall Street,” where his character, Gordon Gekko, tells an auditorium filled with corporate shareholders, “Teldar Paper has 33 different vice presidents each earning over $200,000 a year. Now, I have spent the last two months analyzing what all these guys do, and I still can’t figure it out. One thing I do know is that our paper company lost $110 million last year, and I’ll bet that half of that was spent in all the paperwork going back and forth between all these vice presidents.”

In the real-life scenario with the VA, it is the taxpayers who are losing millions of dollars a year. And the veterans themselves are sadly the biggest losers.

Currently, veterans must travel to VA hospitals for the majority of their treatments. This distance can often be a major roadblock to health care for veterans living in rural areas who have to travel long distances to reach the closest VA hospital. Veterans in Roswell and surrounding areas are faced with this challenge.

This was reported in a front-page story earlier this week by Jerry Heck.

Veterans are reimbursed 55 cents per mile for their travel and are put up in hotel rooms if they have to stay overnight in Albuquerque or El Paso.

Heck described how one local veteran had to stay overnight in Albuquerque to receive hearing aids (after waiting two years), when he simply could have gotten the very same hearing aids here in town if the VA reimbursed a local doctor or clinic.

A World War II veteran who came into the newspaper recently showed me “progress notes” from his visit to the VA in El Paso last November.

During his appointment, the doctor advised that it was unsafe for him to drive back to Roswell because he had macular degeneration and was “blind in one eye.”

While waiting in the lobby for a taxi, the veteran apparently got frustrated and drove himself home. He told me he recently passed the eye test to renew his driver’s license.

Wouldn’t it be great if veterans living in rural areas didn’t have to travel to hospitals hours away for their appointments?

U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, who represents Roswell in New Mexico’s 2nd Congressional District, has proposed such a plan.

Pearce has sponsored H.R.635 — Help Establish Access to Local Timely Healthcare for You (HEALTHY) Vets Act of 2013. The bill would allow veterans to access local health care facilities, which will save the veteran time, money and physical strain.

The HEALTHY Vets Act would allow veterans to use health care providers in their hometowns by directing the VA to contract with local hospitals and doctors on a case-by-case basis to provide medical services. The bill was originally filled in February 2013 and has been reintroduced.

A spokesman for Pearce’s Roswell office said that an additional advantage of a VA-funded local-fee-for-service program is that it would help rural areas by providing an enticement for physicians to open private practices. These doctors would serve veterans as well as all members of the community.

The spokesman added that discussion is under way to create partnerships between VA and medical schools to facilitate such opportunities. Doctors who opt in would gain valued experience in the treatment of long-term outpatient care of veterans requiring follow- up treatment from battlefield trauma injuries.

The bill has 23 cosponsors. One is U.S. Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., who is a Navy veteran and physician with experience in both the military and veteran health systems. Under Harris’ plan, veterans would be able to opt out of the VA health system entirely, and instead get care through a private health insurance plan.

From everything I’ve read and heard in the news, this is good, common-sense legislation that will not only expedite care for veterans but save millions for the taxpayers.

Let’s hope this bill actually passes or doesn’t get watered down with frivolous amendments. Our veterans deserve better that what they’re getting now.


Timothy P. Howsare is the editor of the Roswell Daily Record.

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