Most private hospitals can only dream of the futuristic medicine Dr. Divya Shroff practices today. Outside an elderly patient's room, the attending physician gathers her residents around a wireless laptop propped on a mobile cart. Shroff accesses the patient's entire medical history--a stack of paper in most private hospitals. And instead of trekking to the radiology lab to view the latest X-ray, she brings it up on her computer screen. While Shroff is visiting the patient, a resident types in a request for pain medication, then punches the SEND button. Seconds later, the printer in the hospital pharmacy spits out the order. The druggist stuffs a plastic bag of pills into what looks like a tiny space capsule, then shoots it up to the ward in a vacuum tube. By the time Shroff wheels away her computer, a nurse walks up with the drugs.
Life in a big-name institution like the Mayo Clinic? Not hardly. Shroff, 31, a specialist in internal medicine, works at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Washington, where the vets who come for the cutting-edge treatment are mostly poor.
If you're surprised, that's understandable. Until the early 1990s, care at VA hospitals was so substandard that Congress considered shutting down the entire system and giving ex-G.I.s vouchers for treatment at private facilities. Today it's a very different story. The VA runs the largest integrated health-care system in the country, with more than 1,400 hospitals, clinics and nursing homes employing 14,800 doctors and 61,000 nurses. And by a number of measures, this government-managed health-care program--socialized medicine on a small scale--is beating the marketplace. For the sixth year in a row, VA hospitals last year scored higher than private facilities on the University of Michigan's American Customer Satisfaction Index, based on patient surveys on the quality of care received. The VA scored 83 out of 100; private institutions, 71. Males 65 years and older receiving VA care had about a 40% lower risk of death than those enrolled in Medicare Advantage, whose care is provided through private health plans or HMOs, according to a study published in the April edition of Medical Care. Harvard University just gave the VA its Innovations in American Government Award for the agency's work in computerizing patient records.
And all that was achieved at a relatively low cost. In the past 10 years, the number of veterans receiving treatment from the VA has more than doubled, from 2.5 million to 5.3 million, but the agency has cared for them with 10,000 fewer employees. The VA's cost per patient has remained steady during the past 10 years. The cost of private care has jumped about 40% in that same period.
Vets still gripe about wading through red tape for treatment. Some 11,000 have been waiting 30 days or more for their first appointment. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars could stress the system, although for the moment VA officials say the agency can accommodate the new patients. That's because older vets, especially those from the World War II and Korean War eras, are dying of natural causes at the rate of about 600,000 a year, whereas the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have so far created a little more than 550,000 new vets.