Cal Thomas: Dose of privatization could go long way toward fixing VA’s ills

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PORTSTEWART, Northern Ireland — The ongoing scandal at Veterans Administration hospitals in the United States, which alleges the mistreatment of patients, resulting in numerous deaths, is being used by some critics to indict Obamacare. They believe what is occurring at VA hospitals is a preview of coming destruction should the U.S. government move beyond meddling in health insurance into a full-scale takeover of the entire health care system.

Critics of the VA have only to look across the Atlantic at the crumbling National Health Services in the United Kingdom as a glaring example of the dysfunction that results when government runs health care. They should then try to steer the United States away from ever replicating that level of dysfunction. For years NHS horror stories have abounded, reported dutifully by the British press. These include neglect of elderly patients, long waiting times (like the VA) to see a doctor and longer waits for necessary surgery, which the government in some cases denies based on cost, age of patient (death panels, anyone?) and unusually high numbers of deaths at some hospitals.

The VA could learn something from what happened at a hospital in Cambridgeshire, England. As reported by the Daily Mail, as recently as two years ago the Hinchingbrooke hospital had a deficit of 10 million pounds ($16.8 million) a year; it ranked 102nd in the country in admission waiting time; charged 40 pounds ($67) to park, with fines for overstaying, and in what sounds like the punch line to a joke, took one week to change a light bulb.

Today, the hospital is due to break even. A surplus is expected next year. Hinchingbrooke has zoomed up in ranking to number 20 in the country in waiting time. Parking now costs 2.50 pounds ($4.21) with fines scrapped. Minor maintenance problems are dealt with in one day.

What was responsible for such a miraculous transformation at this NHS hospital? Hinchingbrooke was turned over to a private firm. Once described as a “basket case,” the hospital is now ranked number one in patient satisfaction.

A key to healing this sick hospital, reports The Daily Mail, was “loosening the grip of managers and accountants.” A majority of board members, once bean counters and bureaucrats, are now clinicians. “Doctors, nurses and admin(istrative) staff have also been put into small groups which have representatives who meet senior managers twice a month” to discuss problems. Patients are also asked to comment on their care with the assurance that any problems will be resolved within three weeks.

The VA could learn something from the experience at Hinchingbrooke. At a minimum, veterans who face long waits or suffer from life-threatening conditions should be given vouchers to allow them to seek care at private hospitals. Since, according to the White House, President Obama only “learned about” the VA scandal from TV news reports (though he spoke about them during the 2008 presidential campaign and was critical of President Bush for not fixing them), Congress must take the lead in offering treatment alternatives to veterans. The administration will likely propose increased spending, but money is not the problem. Bureaucracy and incompetence are the problem.

Reforming VA hospitals should be a 2016 campaign theme all presidential candidates should address and they should propose specific solutions. At a minimum, a quasi-government-private approach might work. It couldn’t be worse than the current system.

The phrase uttered by President Abraham Lincoln, which is the motto of the Veterans Administration, must always be uppermost in our minds: “To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan.”

Sadly, that goal is not being met. It must be. We owe veterans (and those we memorialize next Monday) our freedom. Perhaps what happened at Hinchingbrooke Hospital can guide the VA and veterans to a better future.