Commentary

The VA Is in Critical Condition, but What Is the Prognosis?


 

In his first ever—and perhaps the first ever state of the VA—speech delivered on May 30, 2017, VA Secretary David J. Shulkin, MD, reported to the nation and Congress that “the VA is still in critical condition.” This medical metaphor reflects Dr. Shulkin’s distinction of being the only physician ever to hold this cabinet-level post.

For anyone in health care, such a reference immediately calls forth a variety of associations—most of them serious concerns for the status of the VA and whether it will survive. In this editorial, I will expand on this metaphor and explore its meaning for the future of the VA.

Dr. Shulkin extended the metaphor when he said that the “VA requires intensive care.” For clinicians, this remark tells us that the VA is either seriously ill or injured. Yet there is hope because the chief doctor of the VA reassures us that the patient—the largest health care system in the country—is improving. This improvement from critical care to intensive care status informs us that the VA was very sick, maybe even dying, during the previous administration in which Dr. Shulkin served as VA’s Under Secretary for Health.

Dr. Shulkin, a general internist who still sees primary care patients at the VA, gave us a diagnosis of the VA’s most serious symptoms: a lack of access to timely care, a high rate of veteran suicides, an inability to enforce employee accountability, multiple obstacles to hiring and retaining qualified staff, an unacceptable quality of care at some VAMCs, and a backlog of disability claims due to inefficient processing.

Dr. Shulkin also gave us a broad idea of his goal for care, “We are taking immediate and decisive steps stabilizing the organization.” But the more I thought about this impressive speech, the more I wondered, What is the VA’s actual diagnosis?

Several of the many news commentaries analyzing Shulkin’s State of the VA speech suggested possible etiologies. According to the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), “In a ‘State of the VA’ report, Shulkin, a physician, issued a blunt diagnosis: ‘There is a lot of work to do.’” Astute clinicians will immediately recognize that PBS is right about the secretary’s honesty regarding the magnitude of the task facing him.

He was not providing a diagnosis as much as offering an indirect assessment of the patient’s condition. “A lot of work,” although not a diagnosis, is a colloquial description of the treatment plan that the secretary further outlined in his report. Like any good treatment plan, there is a direct correlation between the major symptoms of the disorder and the therapies that Dr. Shulkin prescribed.

The Secretary recommended and the President signed the Department of Veterans Affairs Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act of 2017 on June 23, 2017, to make it easier to discipline and terminate VA employees who may be keeping the VA organization ill or at least preventing it from getting better. He also prescribed continued and even higher dose infusions of community care to treat the central access problem. In addition, Dr. Shulkin ordered that the most effective available interventions be used for suicide prevention, enhancement of the overall quality of care, and to improve accountability.

Even with the most efficacious treatments, a high-functioning intensive care unit needs state-of-theart technology and equipment. In a long-awaited announcement, Dr. Shulkin reported on June 5 that of 2 competing modalities to revive the VA’s ailing electronic health record system—the brain of our critical care patient—rather than repair the moribund CPRS, the VA will receive a transplant of the DoD MHS Genesis. Critical care, especially when delivered in a combat zone, requires difficult triage decisions. The secretary has made similar tough resource allocation decisions, determining that some of the VA’s oldest and most debilitated facilities will not be sustained in their present form.

I am near the end of this editorial and still do not have a diagnosis. Pundits, politicians, and policy specialists all have their differential diagnosis as well as veterans groups and VA employees.“Bloated bureaucracy” is the diagnosis from many of these VA critics. Dr. Shulkin proposed a remedy for this disease: He plans to consolidate the VA headquarters.

Even more important, for those who believe the VA should not have a DNR but be allowed to recover, what does the physician who holds the VA’s life in his hands believe is the prognosis for this 86-year-old institution? Dr. Shulkin expressed the hope that the VA can recover its health, saying he is “confident that we will be able turn

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