Michael Tanner

Bipartisanship has broken out in Washington. This isn’t usually a good sign.

Faced with the ongoing scandal in the VA health-care system, Democrats and Republicans have joined together to rush through legislation in near-record time.

The Senate passed legislation, sponsored by Bernie Sanders and John McCain, in early June — just two months (or a blink in D.C. terms) — and the House has followed suit. The margins in both chambers were overwhelming: 93–3 in the Senate, and 421–0 in the House. A conference committee will now work out the differences between the two bills.

The legislation sounds great: bipartisan, about veterans, reacting to a scandal that Americans are demanding be addressed. It’s overwhelmingly popular. What could possibly go wrong?

Pretty much everything.

First, neither the House nor the Senate bill would fundamentally change the way that government provides health care to our veterans. The VA would continue to operate one of the world’s largest health-care systems, building and owning hospitals, hiring doctors, and providing care directly to millions of veterans — regardless, in many cases, of whether or not their ailments are service-related.

Of course, it may well be that some traumatic combat injuries require specialized treatment that is not widely available outside the VA system. If so, the VA may have to continue providing such care. But the vast majority of injuries and illnesses, even combat-connected ones, can be treated elsewhere.

Both the House and the Senate bills appear to recognize this, allowing veterans to seek outside health care at VA expense if they experience long wait times for appointments or if they live more than 40 miles from a VA hospital or clinic. But both bills leave the ultimate decision about which veterans can go outside the VA system to VA administrators. Thus, the same bureaucrats responsible for the current waiting lists and other problems will be in charge of deciding when and if veterans should be given a choice. Isn’t that a bit like letting the fox guard the henhouse?

Michael Tanner

Michael D. Tanner is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, heading research into a variety of domestic policies with particular emphasis on health care reform, welfare policy, and Social Security. His most recent white paper, "Bad Medicine: A Guide to the Real Costs and Consequences of the New Health Care Law," provides a detailed examination of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) and what it means to taxpayers, workers, physicians, and patients.


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