Getting to the Bottom of the VA Issue
July 02, 2014
Author: Eric Dusseau, W’17
The recent Veteran’s Affairs (VA) scandal created a great deal of confusion in the media, especially when it came to the facts. A senior staffer with whom I work in the office of Congressman Joe Garcia (D-FL-26) asked me to do some research on the subject to help clarify those facts for everyone in the office. She was especially concerned with the relationship between VA funding and the number of VA patients. This was my first opportunity since joining the office to demonstrate my abilities, so I eagerly got to work on this project.
I started off with a basic Google search to get a cursory understanding of the topic, but I quickly realized that to get to the heart of the issue I would need to look at the hard data. Fortunately, the VA website had a great deal of data going back to 2000.
I first looked at VA expenditure data to see how that had progressed since 2000. I found that total VA expenditures had increased by 191% from 2000 to 2012. However, VA patient expenditures had only increased by 160%. This initially seemed like good news, considering the fact that the number of veteran patients handled by the VA had increased by 60% within that time frame, and the average expenditure per patient was up 62%, from $4,493 in 2000 to $7,297 in 2012. After this brief look at the data, I could clearly see that VA spending was outpacing the number of patients it was seeing. But if this was the case, why was the VA having issues with wait times? While inefficiency might be a large part of the problem, I wanted to ascertain whether there was a less obvious issue that no one had spotted.
I decided to look at the other data on the VA website to figure out if there was a confounding variable I had missed. I started looking at data that was separated by the type of VA priority group. When a veteran enrolls in the VA system, the VA assigns them to one of eight priority groups. I became interested in priority group 1 because the number of priority 1 patients had nearly tripled from 2000 to 2012. Priority 1 patients have the second highest disability ranking and are the second most expensive to care for, which means that they can have a bigger impact on the VA system than most VA patients. In 2012, the average expenditure per Priority 1 patient was $11,839; this amount is substantial because the average expenditure per patient was only $7,297. This disparity led me to the conclusion that these patients also require more time with caregivers at VA facilities, which could be responsible in part for the increased wait times.
With this in mind, I reported my findings to the staffer who initially had asked me for this information. While very few people may have ended up looking at my findings, at the end of the day I provided information for policymakers to act upon. This task helped me appreciate all of the small parts that go into formulating policy in our government.
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