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Editorial: Proposal to offer private health care to veterans is worth an experiment

The Department of Veterans Affairs is planning to shift billions of dollars in health care costs from the government’s veterans’ hospitals to private providers. It’s an obvious idea that is well worth pursuing, at least as a test.

Given the poor job VA hospitals have done, in Buffalo and elsewhere, over the past several years, this is a change that could make a difference in the quality of care delivered to the country’s veterans. The trick will be to make the change without hurting veterans, including those who remain in VA care, or harming the general public by overwhelming hospitals in the private sector.

Those are real risks, but for many veterans, risk is already reality. Some have died because of substandard care at VA hospitals. Others have simply not received treatment. That can’t continue. One solution is to open government-paid treatment to them in the private sector.

It’s not a risk-free proposal and, making matters even more uncertain – and disconcerting for many veterans – the Trump administration hasn’t been clear on its goals or plans. More details are needed.

Still, the health care for veterans has been, in many ways, a national shame – and a bipartisan one. Neither Republican nor Democratic administrations have found a way to substantially improve veterans health care.

The conundrum is that many veterans appear to like the care they are receiving from VA hospitals. Part of that is because of the shared sense of sacrifice and mission they find in those institutions. It’s a fact that government officials are duty-bound to consider as they plan any transfer of patients to the private sector system of health care.

Nevertheless, such a change could have welcome benefits for veterans, including shorter waits, more choices and fewer requirements for co-pays. One possibility, reported in The New York Times, is that the administration would craft a plan similar to the military’s insurance plan, Tricare Prime, which allows patients to see a private doctor if they encounter significant delays in getting an appointment with a VA physician or have to travel more than 30 minutes for such an appointment.

While there are undeniable risks, the move would provide more reliable health care that is easier to access. With those advantages, it would be irresponsible not to look carefully into what can be done to accomplish the greatest good for America’s veterans while doing the least harm.

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