How the VA became a leader in American health care (Guest Blog: Colin D. Moore)

Oklahoma City's VA hospital
Oklahoma City’s VA hospital

Colin D. Moore is Assistant Professor of Political Science, University of Hawai’i at Manoa, and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network (SSN).  His research examines how the development of public bureaucracies has shaped politics and public policy in the United States. This post is adopted with permission from an SSN brief.

Most Americans would be surprised to learn that the nation’s largest health care provider is not a private hospital network or an insurance company – it is the government-run Veterans Health Administration, popularly known as “the VA.” Every year more than 8.3 million veterans receive free or low-cost health care at hundreds of VA medical centers and outpatient clinics, parts of the most extensive integrated health care system in the country. The number of patients served has nearly doubled over the past fifteen years. Although VA patients are, on average, sicker and poorer than the average American, the system successfully delivers high-quality health care, even as it reins in costs.

The VA did not always have a good reputation. Just a few decades ago, the VA was known as a hidebound bureaucracy delivering poor care in dilapidated facilities. The system’s shortcomingsconfirmed many people’s worst fears about “government-run health care.” But a subsequent turnaround suggests that public health care can provide quality services that Americans value.

Although people think of the VA as a system to help wounded soldiers, the vast majority of its patients have always been poor veterans without injuries connected to their military service. Following the Civil War of the 1860s, both poor and wounded veterans received long-term care at public hospitals and government-funded veterans’ homes. After World War I, hospitals were consolidated to create the modern VA system, which was greatly expanded after World War II. In 1996, the Veterans’ Health Care Eligibility Reform Act of 1996 granted new access to large numbers of middle class veterans with no combat injuries. The number of veterans enrolled has grown from 4.7 million in 1999 to 8.3 million today.

The VA not only provides publicly supported care to large numbers of veterans; it also plays a major role in medical education and research. More than half of all American-trained physicians have received at least part of their education in a veterans’ hospital. A strong partnership between the VA and academic medical schools was formed at the end of World War II, at a time when the VA faced mounting pressure to care for millions of wounded soldiers.

By most accounts, this half-century partnership has been a tremendous success. The size and patient population of VA medical centers offer numerous opportunities for medical residencies and research, while VA hospitals benefit from their affiliation with top medical schools.

Although the VA improved after World War II, its reputation for medical excellence began a long decline in the 1970s. Embarrassing failures led to protests from veterans associations, and some critics called for the breakup of the VA and the privatization of veterans’ health care.

After President Bill Clinton’s plan for national health reform fell short in 1994, VA officials saw an opportunity to expand their system. In essence, they lobbied for services to be expanded to middle class veterans, and proposed that the VA should expand from a hospital system treating acutely ill patients into an integrated system to provide ongoing primary and preventive health care. The VA proposal attracted bipartisan support because it promised to expand VA clinics into under-served rural areas – particularly in the Sunbelt states.

The result of the legislation signed by President Clinton in 1996 is the Veterans Administration health system we see today. Now veterans receive comprehensive medical care at more than 800 community-based outpatient clinics, all of which are affiliated with VA medical centers through a series of regional health care networks. Recent reforms both built on and salvaged the valuable alliance with medical schools. Doctors continue to get training at VA hospitals, and ties to advanced medical centers have helped the contemporary VA become a leader at using advanced technologies and research-proven medical treatments to deliver good care at a reasonable cost.

Some critics still call for the privatization of veterans’ health care on the grounds that public institutions are inherently rigid and costly. But the VA’s success demonstrates that public institutions can devise creative partnerships and implement imaginative reforms.  Millions of veterans – even those who are relatively well-off – freely choose to receive their health care from the VA. As U.S. health care costs continue to spiral out of control, the VA’s success offers one possible blueprint for a public option that delivers quality care at a reasonable price.

The opinions stated above are not necessarily those of OK Policy, its staff, or its board. This blog is a venue to help promote the discussion of ideas from various points of view and we invite your comments and contributions. To see our guidelines for blog submissions, click here.


The opinions stated in guest articles are not necessarily those of OK Policy, its staff, or its board. To see our guidelines for blog submissions, click here.

One thought on “How the VA became a leader in American health care (Guest Blog: Colin D. Moore)

  1. While I agree with all the points made about the excellence of the VA system, I would further note that the VA has, by far, the best electronic medical records in the US, and has for many years. Their use of electronic records to support and enhance patient care has been a key to their success. Many civilian electronic records primarily support higher billing to insurance companies, not better care for patients.

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