For years, government leaders seemed to run away from the looming crisis in health care at the Department of Veterans Affairs. This avoidance of reality resulted in serious, even fatal, outcomes for veterans who could not get timely medical care.
And now, the finger pointing obscures the real issue: What should we do to help veteran patients now? The answer lies with America’s academic medical centers.
We could solve this problem immediately if all VA academic partners would step up and provide pathways to timely care for veterans. VA leaders need to prioritize the health needs of veterans. And they can: The VA has statutory authority to facilitate the care of veterans in academic health-care facilities.
“To care for him who shall have borne the battle …” is the VA motto, and it applies to all physicians. As academic physicians closely affiliated with VA Medical Centers, we must demonstrate a sense of urgency by running toward this crisis, not away. Veterans are our heroes too. The VA’s academic-medicine partners should facilitate access to health care for veterans. Together we physicians can provide timely care now while Washington irons out a long-term system overhaul.
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The VA-academic partnerships were created after World War II. They work. The Charleston VA and the Medical University of South Carolina have been effective partners for more than half a century. The Charleston VA provides high-quality medical care and collaborates every day with MUSC for specialty medical care for veterans. MUSC physicians see patients side-by-side with their VA colleagues in VA facilities. The Charleston VA serves as a critical partner as MUSC educates future health-care professionals.
We cannot defend the VA’s practices of hiding access problems or its delayed care leading to poor health outcomes or patient deaths. But we can offer a solution to immediate access problems by enabling the VA Health System to collaborate with its academic partners to use all means necessary to provide timely care. The VA must act now.
As this crisis is being addressed within the VA, I challenge academic medical centers across the country to serve as first responders and provide care now to veterans who cannot access VA care. Academic medicine can use its hospitals and clinics to help the VA eliminate its backlog. Sick veterans need to be taken care of now.
John R. Feussner, M.D.
Executive Senior Associate Dean for Clinical Affairs, MUSC College of Medicine