America has made an expensive yet richly merited promise to its veterans. It works like this: If you serve our country and get injured or spend your career in uniform, then our country will pick up the tab for your medical care for the rest of your life.
That’s a two-way pact with our veterans that should find room in our hearts this Memorial Day weekend. The holiday is geared explicitly toward remembrance of those service members who did not survive the dangers we sent them to face, but it’s also fitting to recall the debt we owe those who returned home.
It’s an especially warranted reflection here in North Texas, where so many of those veterans have chosen to live. The Department of Veterans Affairs tells us that half a million veterans reside in the North Texas service area. Soon, officials told us recently, this region will boast the highest concentration of veterans living anywhere in the United States.
Increasingly, the story of America’s veterans, and how the rest of us are living up to our pledge to provide them medical care, is a Dallas story. Over at the sprawling and often surprising veterans’ hospital in southern Dallas, about 135,000 of those veterans were patients last year.
To get a better sense of the challenges they face, and of the challenges their doctors and nurses face in caring for them, we spent the day recently at the VA Dallas Medical Center. We left with a profound respect for the commitment and technological innovation on display — seemingly around every corner.
Roughly 5,500 full-time workers [or their equivalent] make their livings in those long corridors, and they do so amid an astonishing array of cutting-edge technology and emotional commitment. "We made a promise to our veterans," Dr. Stephen Holt told us during a sit-down interview after a tour. "And I firmly believe that when they come here for medical care they get care as good as they could get in any private hospital."
He said he has the means to go to any hospital he chooses to, but he firmly believes the care he received as an Air Force veteran in VA hospitals saved his life when his own health challenges threatened to sideline him.
Throughout the hospital we saw evidence of top-of-the-line care. There was a suite of rooms for women facing mammograms and other tests for breast cancer that looked more like a high-end spa than a room in a crowded and sometimes chaotic public hospital. It’s part of a system-wide effort to make women feel more comfortable in the often male-dominated world of veterans.
We saw bay after bay of dialysis stations, more than at just about anywhere in Texas, and each with privacy screens, high-end televisions and long views out the windows.
We saw an expanded Emergency Room ready to open in July. Soon there’ll be nearly twice as many beds available as there are now.
On another floor, there’s a wing of rooms dedicated to vets who are learning to deal with wounds that they almost certainly wouldn’t have survived in previous wars. As Holt told us, battlefield medical care is better than it has ever been, which means that veterans now routinely show up at hospitals like this with needs only barely imaginable in years past.
In recent years, the VA has rated the Dallas facility as not performing well. But from 2016 to 2017, the Dallas VA went from a 1-star rating to a 3-star rating. In most measures that assess patient safety, the Dallas VA outperformed other facilities nationwide. In addition, a 2017 RAND Corp. study found that on average, and in most categories, patient care at VA hospitals is as good as or better that provided by public and private hospitals outside the VA system.
All of this left us hopeful about the care veterans in our midst can receive.
But there is still work to be done. For starters, the VA has also found that patient satisfaction rates at the Dallas VA hospital are low. That could stem from long wait times, issues with parking, or, in a problem the VA is confronting nationwide, delays in setting appointments. Or it could stem from specific cases where the care provided fell far short of what should be expected. Word travels fast within the veteran community, and many veterans we know are unsparing in their criticism. If you are veteran, please send us a letter about your VA experience (dallasnews.com/sendletters). We want to hear from you.
The good news is that the Dallas VA is working to address clear problems. New parking has been added and the lobby will soon be renovated to accommodate more patients and reduce wait-times.
We were proud to see some of that work in action. But we are also mindful that it is essential that these efforts succeed and that the VA provide the quality care our veterans need and deserve. Our veterans served our country, and now it is our turn to serve them.
Steps in the right direction:
The VA Dallas Medical Center has tried to improve perceptions of care lately:
1. It’s added to new parking garages.
2. An $10 million expansion of the E.R. will be complete by July.
3. Plans to completely overhaul the lobby and waiting room experience are underway.
What’s your view?
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