Still, many veterans have expressed satisfaction with VA medical care, and RAND Corp. researchers have found VA care equal to or better than care in non-VA facilities. In April, the American Customer Satisfaction Index reported that more than 90% of veterans rated VA care positively on customer service and inpatient and outpatient care.
Experts say one factor behind the care delays is the cumbersome process the VA must go through to determine veterans' eligibility and priority for medical care based on their injuries and disabilities. “What the VA most needs is to relax (the) administrative gatekeeping,” said Phillip Longman, a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation who has studied the VA system.
Debra Draper, healthcare team director for the Government Accountability Office, said the VA needs to clarify its policies and procedures. When her agency previously looked at wait times and scheduling at VA facilities, it found that policies were often ambiguous and open to staff interpretation.
Longman said another problem is that some geographic areas with higher concentrations of veterans lack adequate VA care capacity. The movement of retiring older veterans from the Northern states to the Sunbelt states has strained VA hospitals and clinics in those areas. For instance, Florida has a veteran population of more than 1.5 million, while New York has less than 900,000. But New York has 12 VA medical centers while Florida has nine.
Other observers, however, said the bottom-line issues are truth and accountability. “The VA has to produce real honest statistics that will let the public, the Congress, the American Legion, and the VFW know how many people are seeking medical and disability benefits and how long the actual wait time is,” said Ronald Abrams, joint executive director for the National Veterans Legal Services Program. “It's a systemic problem that can only be fixed by a complete study of the system.”
Obama seemed to agree: “I want people on the front lines, if there's a problem, to tell me or tell Rick Shinseki or tell whoever's their superior, that this is a problem. Don't cover up a problem.”
Follow Rachel Landen on Twitter: @MHrlanden