Niagara Gazette

February 5, 2013

CONFER: Honor veterans with vouchers

By Bob Confer
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — When sending off our men and women to fight for our defense or interests abroad where they face the barrel of a gun or travel along bomb-strewn roads as a course of their daily duties, it only makes sense that upon their return we give our warriors some sort of reward since most of them are paid peanuts for the risks they take. It isn’t unreasonable to say that we should offer publicly-funded healthcare to our veterans. They deserve it and it should be our responsibility to maintain and improve the health of bodies and minds that were scarified for us.

But, the current way of doing things – clinics, hospitals and doctors maintained by Veterans Affairs (VA) – shouldn’t be the only way. By following that path, we’ve achieved the cruelest of ironies: After they have survived wars and occupations overseas, the health system that was meant to protect our veterans at home could ultimately end up being the very thing that kills them.

Consider what has happened in our own backyard. A routine inspection discovered that 716 vets who were served by the Buffalo VA Medical Center could have been exposed to HIV or hepatitis from reused insulin pens. Hospital staff did not follow the necessary protocol and failed to dispose of the one-time use pens, which in turn created a health risk similar to that of sharing a syringe.

This is not the first HIV scare to plague the VA and its patients. In early 2009, some 10,000 patients from VA hospitals in three states (Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee) were put at risk of contracting the disease after unsterilized colonoscopy equipment was repeatedly used. After checking every one of the individuals exposed to the dirty tubes, it was found that 16 of them were infected — 10 with hepatitis and six with “unspecified infections.” That’s 16 too many.

Were that to happen in the private sector, doctors, nurses, and even hospitals would lose their employment and their licenses. Not in the VA system. It is, after all, a federal bureaucracy.

The barrage of local media reports and federal investigations concerning the Buffalo fiasco show a total lack of accountability amongst higher ups there and at the top of the federal chain of command. No one has been fired. The cross-functional domino effect has moved at a turtle’s pace. 

It’s a repeat of the 2009 HIV scare when 3 months after the initial announcement the VA discovered that half of their medical centers still had not developed cleaning procedures, nor could they show that they properly trained their staff. Not surprisingly, no one in a position of responsibility lost their job because of the colonoscopy incidents. The closet the VA came to that? The head of the Miami VA clinic was only reassigned.

It doesn’t make ethical and moral sense to subject our veterans to such a system, so set in its ways and so averse to change. The VA has no reason or will to change because it’s a monopoly. They have a captive audience and there is no competition allowed for it.

One of the greatest aspects of free markets and free choice is competition … the dueling participants (individuals or organizations) will always aspire to offer and/or acquire the best, most diverse and effective products or services possible. Without that motivation, limitations and suspect quality rule the day.

We need to allow our vets some of that freedom (after all, didn’t they fight for freedom?) and give them the ability to choose the care they want, from whom they want, and from where they want. They shouldn’t be limited to a single source. Let them get their care from a VA medical center if they’d like. Let them get their care from a Kalieda medical center if they’d like.

The best way to achieve this is through some sort of voucher system, whereby veterans would receive government-funded insurance or their providers would receive publicly-paid reimbursement. It’s a simple concept that would allow the vets to escape the ills of the VA system while pursuing the best care at some of America’s best facilities.

The voucher system would not be dissimilar to Medicaid, through which recipients receive stellar care and benefits that far rival what most privately-insured individuals get. If that Cadillac insurance system can work so well for non-contributors, why shouldn’t something similar – or better – work for those who did contribute to the greatness of our nation?

Simply put, choice and safety are two things that we can — and should — offer our veterans. What we do now affords neither. It’s time for changes … why expose them to ongoing health scares after everything they’ve done for us?

Bob Confer is a Gasport resident and vice president of Confer Plastics Inc. in North Tonawanda. Email him at bobconfer@juno.com.

Bob Confer is a Gasport resident and vice president of Confer Plastics Inc. in North Tonawanda. Email him at bobconfer@juno.com.