Talk with veterans of the great wars of this century, and many will tell tragic stories of futile efforts. They will recall bloody campaigns to capture or hold positions of little strategic value.
Sometimes it appears as if that phenomenon repeats itself in the Department of Veterans Affairs. The government shells out billions clinging to its own healthcare provider system for veterans when perfectly good care-often superior care-is available in the private sector.
As Jonathan Gardner of our Washington bureau noted in last week's cover story (Nov. 23, p. 48), some government and industry officials have been trying for years to move the VA toward the private market. They believe the nation in general-and, more important, the veterans in particular-would be better served by a health insurance plan than by a provider system. Veterans could be treated at civilian hospitals by civilian professionals, and the government would pick up the tab.
The logic of such proposals is undeniable. The number of veterans will shrink in the next century. In the meantime, too many hospital beds in the private sector go unused. The government could extricate itself from the costly business of buildings and equipment and devote the money to medical care. Veterans could seek treatment at facilities close to them, rather than travel to faraway VA hospitals or clinics.
Unfortunately, logic does not prevail in this debate. The battle is all about politics and pork. Some veterans' group lobbyists justify their existence in part by defending the VA healthcare bureaucracy. Their allies in Congress wrap themselves in the mantle of patriotism, declaring that they only want to protect the men and women who have served our country. It is no coincidence that their campaign coffers are also served and that VA facilities are erected in states and congressional districts that don't necessarily have the greatest numbers of veterans.
As Gardner's story noted, many veterans groups see the VA healthcare system as a symbol of the nation's commitment to them and are reluctant to give it up. But that kind of thinking has led to generations of waste. Our veterans don't need symbols, they need high-quality, cost-effective care.