How Flawed Reporting Impacts Veterans and their Caregivers

The drumbeat of negative media coverage over the last four-and-a-half year has taken its toll, and could have serious ramifications. The VHA is having trouble recruiting staff. Will primary care physicians, nurses, psychologists, and other mental health practitioners, social workers or other healthcare professionals sign up to work in a system that is receiving mainly negative media attention? How does such a constant barrage of negative attention impact staff retention and performance?

A recent study published in Psychological Services identified negative media attention as a component in occupational burnout suffered by mental health providers in PTSD specialty clinics. “Providers perceived vulnerability to complaints to the media, Congress, or the VHA leadership was strongly associated with exhaustion and cynicism in this study.”

Negative media may also have an impact on veterans. Will a suicidal veteran who is already resistant to getting help, seek it from a VHA facility? Influenced by negative coverage and ignorant of the many studies documenting the superiority of VHA care –  particularly for veterans with complex physical and mental health problems – will private sector practitioners send veterans to the VHA? When Congressional proposals that aim to further privatize the VA move through Washington, will the public mount any serious opposition?

What is perhaps most tragic is the impact of negative coverage on veterans who say they have been helped – even saved – by the VA. In late March, VHPI met with six Vietnam veterans at the Milwaukee VA medical Center.

All were in their late sixties and early seventies. Each told the same story. They had denied their serious struggles with PTSD, drowning their problems in work or alcohol, or anger. Then they retired and it all came crashing down on them. Finally, they came to the VA for help.

I would not want to go to an outside hospital. They can’t relate to what we’ve been through...
— Veteran at the Milwaukee VA Medical Center

“I decided to wait 48 years until I was ready to explode,” one veteran said. “It was really fantastic when I came here. I have no complaints.”

“I would not want to go to an outside hospital. They can’t relate to what we’ve been through, I don’t know what the hell would happen to me,” another commented. “When I got here, I was absolutely blown away. I got right in,” another offered. What remained of their lives, their relationships with wives and children had been immeasurably improved by devoted therapists. More than this, they were getting treatment for a host of physical problems.

Echoing one another, the veterans said they were lucky to be cared for by the agency. This particular facility and its therapists were special, different, unlike those at any other VA. At other VA hospitals, they contended, things were awful –  vets were in danger. When these vets heard evidence to the contrary, they refused to budge. No, they insisted, the VA is bad everywhere else. Their solution? Don’t fire anyone here – everyone here is a great, dedicated caregiver, driven by their commitment to veterans. As for everywhere else, heads should roll.

“This is what we hear from our patients everyday,” said Mary Beth Shea, the past President of the Association of VA Psychologist Leaders. “They tell us, ‘the VA sucks.’ Then when we ask, 'Really? Have you gotten bad care here?’ They say, ‘No, not here.’"

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This article was expanded from an original article published in The Washington Monthly in the July/August 2018 issue.

Suzanne Gordon has spent three decades reporting on health care programs, workers, and policy. She has authored or edited 21 books, is a patient advocate, and a journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, The Nation, Atlantic Monthly, Washington Monthly, The American Prospect, British Medical Journal (BMJ)  and many other publications. She has appeared on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal, and was a commentator for CBS RADIO, and NPR’s Marketplace. Over the last five years Gordon has reported on the Department of Veterans Affairs and interviewed hundreds of veterans and their caregivers, lawmakers, and health care professionals about the VHA. Her first book on the subject, The Battle for Veterans’ Healthcare: Dispatches from the Frontlines of Policymaking and Patient Care, revealed how the Koch Brothers and members of Congress used the VA wait list crisis to advance VA privatization. Wounds of War: How the VA Delivers Health, Healing and Hope to the Nation’s Veterans captures what could be lost if the VA — an innovative and one-of-a-kind health care system that should be the model for all of American healthcare — is dismantled. Gordon is a senior policy fellow at VHPI.

Jasper Craven, a Vermont native, double-majored in print journalism and political science at Boston University. He has worked for two years in the Boston Globe’s Metro and Investigative units. While at the Globe he collaborated on Shadow Campus, a three-part investigative series focused on greed and mismanagement in Boston’s off-campus student housing market. The series was a finalist for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize. He also served for two years as VTDigger's Chief Political Reporter, covering everything from Bernie Sanders' presidential bid to the Vermont's congressional delegation. Craven has reported for various publications, including Vermont Public Radio, the Chicago Tribune, the Times Argus, MuckRock, Task & Purpose, and Vice. He has also fact-checked a series of major investigative stories that appeared in Rolling Stone, The Intercept and Bloomberg Businessweek. Craven is a policy fellow at VHPI.