It seems as if every time something goes wrong at VA, I hear all about it. Improperly sterilized equipment that might have exposed Veterans to disease, leads to massive media coverage, uproar among veterans, members of Congress calling for hearings. Would the same problem at a civilian facility have gotten the same media coverage? I strongly doubt it. In fact, I’m not even convinced that it would have made the news at all. Hundreds of thousands of Americans die from preventable medical errors every year. That is not a top story on CNN. VA has much greater transparency and higher accountability and oversight than the vast majority of civilian facilities (which probably only have to meet state reporting requirements).
It also seems that the anecdotes about veterans get greater attention, perhaps because we hold veterans in such esteem and want them to receive the best care available. I went to the ER as a teenager with severe abdominal pain. The first doctor who saw me immediately said, “It’s her appendix.” Subsequent doctors thought it might be an ectopic pregnancy (and a series of other misdiagnoses) – I could have died, and ended up spending a total of 14 days in the hospital for what was, in fact, a ruptured appendix. This story would never get any traction in the media or among my FB friends – however, if that happened to me as a Veteran at a VAMC, I am quite sure that it would be considered not only newsworthy but also as an example of how terrible VA is, especially for women veterans.
However, the plural of anecdote is not data. The reality is that VA outperforms other systems in terms of providing recommended care to patients.
My fear is that when we constantly complain about the mistakes VA makes, we push people away from using the VA, leading them to get care in the private sector at a higher cost that may not be any better – or worse, to get no care at all. If our fellow veterans are not getting the care that they need or deserve because all they hear are bad news stories, we have done them a grave disservice by focusing on the negative. And if too many of us stay away, it gives a false impression of what the actual need for care is. Of equal concern is that members of Congress periodically propose cutting funding for VA, even though the needs of returning veterans continue to grow. If veterans do not use the VA for care there is no argument against slashing the benefits we rightly deserve.
Is there room for VA to improve? Certainly. I firmly believe that we must continue to advocate for those improvements while also publicizing and praising VA’s successes. We must balance our critiques of where VA falls short with recognition of excellence. We must urge our fellow veterans to go in, apply for the benefits they have earned, and seek the care that they need.
Let us also lay blame where blame is deserved. If your service did not allow you to transfer your GI Bill benefits or you hear of someone getting mistreatment at a DoD facility, don’t rush to blame the VA. VA is an organization that is bound by the laws written by Congress and has no authority over the Department of Defense.
Women Veterans in particular complain about the reception they receive at some VA facilities – the best way to solve this is for more of us to go! VA is working to improve awareness about women veterans among its employees and the general public, but we must do our part by showing up and speaking up so that employees and our fellow veterans see us and recognize us. And I hope you will join me in urging journalists to provide balanced and accurate coverage of VA. Critique VA when it falls short, but also highlight the great care that VA provides so that veterans are encouraged to get the care they earned.
Kayla Williams is a former sergeant and Arabic linguist in a Military Intelligence company of the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault). Kayla is the author of Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the U.S. Army, a memoir about her experiences negotiating the changing demands on today’s military, including a combat tour in Iraq. She currently lives near Washington, D.C. with her husband, a combat-wounded Veteran.