VA versus the private sector

By Allan M. Block, MD, neurologist in Scottsdale, Ariz for MDedge

Veterans Administration (VA) hospitals are a stepchild in the bizarre mishmash of the U.S. healthcare system. They’re best known (often justifiably so) for rather cantankerous patients, rigid rules, and other oddities (such as patients being able to go on leave and come back).

The majority of American doctors, including myself, did at least part of our training at a VA and have no shortage of stories about them. One I worked at (Omaha VA) was powered by its own nuclear reactor in the basement (no, really, it was, though sadly it’s since been taken out).

VA hospitals, in general, are no-frills — linoleum floors, no piano player in the lobby, very few private rooms, and occasionally in the news for scandals like the one at my hometown Carl T. Hayden VA hospital (I trained there, too).

Yet, a recent study found VA hospitals to be surprisingly efficient compared with the private sector. Their focus on patient care, rather than profits, allows them to run with 8% fewer administrative staff since they generally don’t have to deal with insurance billings, denials, and other paperwork (they also don’t have to deal with shareholders and investor demands or ridiculous CEO salaries, though the study didn’t address that).

On a national scale, this would mean roughly 900,000 fewer administrative jobs in the private sector. Granted, that also would mean those people would have to find other jobs, but let’s look at the patient side. If you had 900,000 fewer desk workers, you’d have the money to hire more nurses, respiratory techs, therapists, and other people directly involved in patient care. You’d also need a lot less office space, which further brings down overhead.

Part of the problem is that a lot of the current medical business is in marketing — how many ads do you see each day for different hospitals in your area? — and upcoding to extract more money from each billing. Neither of these has any clinical value on the patient side of things.

You don’t have to look back too far (2020) for the study that found U.S. healthcare spent four times as much money ($812 billion) per capita than our northern neighbors.

And, for all the jokes we make about the VA (myself included), a study last year found its care was on par (or even better than) most hospitals.

I’m not saying the VA is perfect. All of us who worked there can think of times it wasn’t. But we also remember plenty of issues we’ve had at other places we’ve practiced, too.

Maybe it’s time to stop laughing at the VA and realize they’re doing something right — and learn from it to make healthcare better at the other 6,000 or so hospitals in the U.S.