Sunday, February 18, 2007

Welcome to Military Healthcare

The Washington Post has this story on the neglect American soldiers are facing even at the crown jewel of the military healthcare system, Walter Reed.

But 5 1/2 years of sustained combat have transformed the venerable 113-acre institution into something else entirely -- a holding ground for physically and psychologically damaged outpatients. Almost 700 of them -- the majority soldiers, with some Marines -- have been released from hospital beds but still need treatment or are awaiting bureaucratic decisions before being discharged or returned to active duty.

They suffer from brain injuries, severed arms and legs, organ and back damage, and various degrees of post-traumatic stress. Their legions have grown so exponentially -- they outnumber hospital patients at Walter Reed 17 to 1 -- that they take up every available bed on post and spill into dozens of nearby hotels and apartments leased by the Army. The average stay is 10 months, but some have been stuck there for as long as two years.

The system is straining at the seams and it shows.

I grew up using military healthcare because my father spent 21 years getting his ass shot at in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam to give us this "perk." It was one of the many promises Congress has made through the years to veterans, particularly those of the Greatest Generation, all of which have slowly been revoked as his age group dies out and becomes less of an important voting bloc.

I often tell people that if they want to see what universal healthcare would look like, they should spend a little time at a military hospital because that's what they'd get. Getting an appointment can take months, whether that appointment is just a routine physical or for surgery (I had to wait nine months for surgery when I was in college. I'd graduated by the time my appointment came up). Forget seeing a doctor when your kid is running 102 fever. You'll wait 12 to 15 hours to have the doctor tell you to go home and take ibuprofen.

It's more like benign neglect in the military healthcare world. They care first for soldiers, who get priority if they show up in uniform, and everybody else gets pushed to the back of the line because they aren't the soldier. I'm not complaining that soldiers got priority; I'm pointing out that long waits and limited care wait for anyone who enters such a system.

This isn't even addressing the sometimes shoddy healthcare that patients receive. I have a three-inch, Frankenstein-like scar on my elbow (it's faded enough now not to be an issue) from where I broke my arm at age 7 and had it repaired at the base. I never thought much about how ugly the scar is until my husband had to have his thyroid removed and I saw how beautiful a job the doctor did on him. But aside from my personal stories, law school torts books are filled with medical malpractice cases stemming from slipshod work by military doctors who are overworked and underpaid.

Typically, my family would use an outpatient clinic for sniffles and fevers, only going to the base for those 2 a.m. traumas or very serious problems. That's because it wasn't worth the hassle otherwise. For everyone who thinks universal healthcare is the panacea for whatever they think fails our current system, just spend some time at a base hospital or down at the county facility. That's your future.

P.S.--I'm not saying that some military care isn't excellent or that the price isn't right. It cost my parents $14 for my broken arm in 1971. What I'm saying is that the system is almost always overburdened and understaffed. I think that's what would happen with universal healthcare, too. Do you want to wait a year to have a hip replacement?