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My Turn: Give veterans real health care – and save money



For the Monitor
Thursday, July 27, 2017

The Department of Veterans Affairs budget for fiscal year 2018 is $186.5 billion. There were 8.9 million people enrolled in VA coverage, according to a VA report in 2016. That works out to roughly $20,955 annually for each person covered.

To give a sense of scale, this is nearly three times what Vladimir Putin spends on the entire Russian military (approximately $69 billion, as of 2016). The VA expense is not included in the $611 billion U.S. defense budget. Of course, neither are the 17 U.S. intelligence agencies, or the official foreign aid programs, or the sub rosa Federal Reserve purchases of the defaulted bonds from various dictatorships (that program helped fund the Sudanese genocides, among other charitable works).

Production costs of nuclear weapons are hidden in the Energy Department budget.

So “standing armies” and outre-mer puppet regimes are expensive. The U.S. Founding Fathers might have mentioned that a few times. But even the most pessimistic of them probably didn’t think that the United States would end up spending nearly as much on “defense” as the rest of the world combined. (While remaining completely vulnerable to attacks from airplane passengers with box cutters, rogue bass fishermen taking out dams with fertilizer-laden rowboats, long range plastic drones with nerve gas or the threat of total depopulation from one angry grad student splicing one Ebola gene into the influenza virus.)

Where was I? Oh yes, with the expense of the wounded remnants from our alliances with various Middle Eastern monarchs. (A Founding Father would be interrupting about here with a, “You allied with despotic monarchs in the Middle East, you bespawling cumbergrounds?” Then they’d draw their cutlass or deploy a spontoon, so it’s just as well for us that cryonics wasn’t available for Gen. Stark et al.)

Health and Human Services reported in July 2016 that the typical U.S. citizen spent $10,345 per capita on health care. If we spent the VA’s $20,955 directly on each veteran, they would have double the average coverage. And they could choose their doctor, and go to local clinics, and in general live like normal people.

But most veterans don’t get the money (there is a small, underfunded health voucher program expiring soon). They can’t just go to any doctor or hospital in their community. They have to travel long distances and go on waiting lists at VA institutions. They suffer long delays and inefficiencies.

We don’t run most things this poorly, even most government programs. Take the food stamp program. We don’t build collective farms run by government employees in distant locations and force the poor to drive 100 miles to pick up bags of Soylent Cheese. We let families buy the food they want, in the same stores that everyone else uses. There aren’t any month-long delivery delays or chronic bread shortages.

Then there’s the Internet, which Congress can’t even mention without instant uprisings. We just don’t let them touch it, other than spying on it. We don’t have a Federal Data Administration to impose a 19-year approval process on new software, or an American Mainframe Association to prevent programmers from working until they’re 30, or tax laws that force you to buy your computer through your employer. As a result, the Internet works.

Health care for veterans should be just as important to us as our wi-fi connections. If it were, we would let veterans use their hard-earned health care dollars wherever it was best for them. But then, if we cared about veterans, I guess we wouldn’t send them to serve as pro bono mercenaries for Afghan or Yemeni warlords to get their legs blown off in the first place.

The people in charge of caring about veterans seem interested mostly in health care for themselves. Congress has always exempted itself from its own mismanagement. A congressional patient had 2,250 different medical plans available through their Federal Employees Health Benefits Program the last time I checked, and they get a hefty subsidy (it was 72 percent) on the premiums as well. No VA hospital wait for them.

Veterans (and civilians) should have the same health care choices as Congress, i.e. everything available. Health care for veterans would be better, and it would cost less.

(Bill Walker of Plainfield works for medical-imaging database company M2S in West Lebanon.)