The VA Is Not Just a Hospital, It Is a Community

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The residency applicant walking with me through the lobby of the Albuquerque VA hospital on the way to an interview in my office asked me, “Are all VAs like this?” She was referring to the mariachi band that was entertaining veterans, families, and staff and the volunteer who was serving popcorn—for many years a regular feature at our VA. I responded, “No, they are all a little different, but yes, every VA is more than a hospital.” If she had asked a follow-up question, I would have added, “It is a community.”

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary has multiple definitions of community, and it is remarkable that most of them in one way or another describe the VA from the perspective of many veterans and even career employees:

  • 1: a unified body of individuals: as
    a: state, commonwealth
    b: the people with common interests living in a particular area; broadly: the area itself (eg, the problems of a large community)
    c: an interacting population of various kinds of individuals (as species) in a common location
    d: a group of people with a common characteristic or interest in living together within a larger society (eg, a community of retired persons)
    e: a group linked by a common policy
    f: a body of persons or nations having a common history or common social, economic, and political interests (eg, the international community)
    g: a body of persons of common and especially professional interests scattered through a larger society (eg, the academic community)
  • 2: society at large
  • 3a: joint ownership or participation (community of goods)
    b: common character: likeness (community of interests)
    c: social activity: fellowship d: a social state or condition
    d: a social state or condition

There is much talk in the media about the privatization of the VA. There are zealous critics who argue that privatization would improve access and quality of care. I won’t debate that here.

What I want to consider is what the VA represents and provides in addition to health care. Each VA hospital and clinic serves “a body of persons or nations having a common history or common social, economic, and political interests.” Sit in the waiting area of any VA emergency department or pharmacy and you will hear bonding conversations between veterans. Even when the conversation is critical of the VA, it is because it is their hospital. That “joint ownership or participation” means that every VA employee, including the nearly 30% who wore a uniform, is there for a single purpose: to help veterans. That is our sole mission and advocacy.

Back to my VA. We are “a group of people with a common characteristic or interest living together within a larger society.” Similar to most other large medical centers, this VA is like the army base where I was born and raised—a small village. The single most popular service at my VA is the barber shop where veterans can get a haircut and shave. We also have an extensive clothing closet where eligible veterans experiencing tough times can get decent clothes.

Our VA, like almost any military base, has a post exchange that sells a little bit of everything from snacks to small appliances. When I was an intern, I treated an elderly patient who was in a deep psychotic depression and was transferred with only the clothes he was wearing. After several electroconvulsive treatments, I could tell he was feeling better when he asked me to buy him underwear from the post exchange downstairs. What this patient needed, the community provided.

A VA medical center is “a group of people with a common characteristic or interest living together within a larger society.” Like any American small town, there is a chapel where twice a year chaplains hold a memorial service for families and staff of patients who recently passed away in our hospital. At other times, we gather as a family of various and no faiths to grieve over the loss of a beloved fellow employee who, all too often, died too soon under tragic circumstances.

Much of this interaction naturally takes place around food. In the morning, there is a line at the coffee shop in the lobby that matches any Starbucks in town. Our VA also has an award-winning canteen that knows the favorite dishes of veterans and employees. If you go for breakfast or lunch, you will almost always run in to someone you have not seen in a while and have a quick visit.

At our VA, you also can browse kiosks of handcrafted items and military memorabilia and support small veteran-owned businesses. In good weather you can buy fruits and vegetables at the veteran farmers market and hear the stories of backyard gardeners and small farmers.

There are special events for every season. In the summer, concerts are held in the gazebo and veteran and guest musicians play all types of music. We even have a VA all-star band made up of current and former employees. The band is a big hit with patients and staff alike.

Although many of these community resources are unique to my VA, the effort to provide a welcoming atmosphere for veterans and health care providers to come together as a community is not unusual. Most VA medical centers have developed cultural responses to the needs of the veterans who return often over the course of years to their VA community.

One definition that does not apply to the large, diverse veteran population or to their health care providers is “a unified body of individuals.” There are many veterans who never have and never will set foot inside a VA hospital for many complex reasons. But for those who do call it home and want to receive care under VA auspices, a private VA would result in a deep and abiding loss of community. This loss is especially true for the most disadvantaged and vulnerable for whom the VA provides a broad and compassionate safety net. Under that protective tent, unbefriended veterans may grow closer to employees who have cared for them for years than to their family. Patients with complex medical and psychiatric needs, such as spinal cord injuries, polytrauma, substance use disorders, and posttraumatic stress disorder find specialized services dedicated to them that would be difficult to rival anywhere in the private sector.What also is not appreciated amid the fierce and too often well-deserved criticisms of VA business processes is that all VA health care practitioners are “a group linked by a common policy.” Even if we do not always live up to them, the VA has higher regulatory and ethical standards than almost any civilian health care organization. Ensuring those standards are followed in a myriad of health care entities not under VA policy and federal regulation seems a shibboleth.

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