Maine’s Veterans Administration health care system hired nearly 200 employees in the wake of the nationwide VA scandal. Now, even with outpatient visits up more than 20 percent year-to-year through June, 99 percent of first-time patients are getting appointments within 30 days.

That’s an improvement in access for a system that has always provided better-than-average care, and it shows that the VA’s challenges, while significant, are misunderstood, and can be overcome.

It also shows why it is misguided to use the scandal to push for the privatization of the massive veterans health care system, as is now being done by powerful forces in Washington.

PUSH FOR PRIVATIZATION

Privatization has been the goal of free-market reformers and health care corporations for some time, and the scary initial headlines related to the 2014 VA scandal gave that goal momentum. But, after two years of investigation, it is clear that the problems at the VA are not nearly as momentous or harmful to patient health as they were first portrayed.

That starts with the claim that most people remember, that 40 veterans died waiting for care through the VA system in Phoenix. A report later found that only six veterans died while waiting for care, and in all six cases the deaths could not be tied to delays.

There were problems at the Phoenix VA, but they were the result of the large number of aging veterans in the area. It was the starkest example of what was happening around the country as Vietnam-era veterans grew older and required more care, and as so many veterans returned from Iraq and Afghanistan, many with significant health care needs.

The VA was never given the resources it needed to deal with the influx of new patients, and when it could not meet its own goals for scheduling appointments – which were more ambitious than those of private providers overall – some officials tried to cover it up, compounding the scandal.

But even as its worst, subsequent investigations have found, the VA was seeing most first-time patients in a reasonable time frame, and the vast majority of the patients being made to wait were scheduling routine primary-care visits, not seeking care for an urgent ailment.

GOOD CARE OVERALL

Through it all, the VA has delivered health care outcomes equal to or better than those of private providers, according to numerous studies, and that applies to mental health care as well.

That’s likely because the VA is a nationwide fully integrated system that works with patients for a lifetime, providing incentives to act in the interest of a patient’s long-term health, a key to treating the chronic diseases so many veterans will have as they age.

The system is an innovator in the field of electronic medical records and telemedicine, providing a model for private providers and making sure veterans get the right care regardless of where they live.

And the VA has made great strides in veteran homelessness and suicide in the last few years, proving the agency is the best route for addressing areas of concern specific to veterans.

Those victories are being ignored by forces, including the conservative Koch brothers, that see a strong VA system as a threat to their fight against government-run health care.

The VA is not without problems, and although the touted Veterans Choice program needs fixing, an increase in private options for veterans is warranted, as recommended by the VA’s Commission on Care.

But too much privatization would divert resources and threaten the VA’s ability to serve veterans, particularly those with service-related injuries.

That’s the VA’s mission – to serve veterans, and veterans alone. And despite what you might have heard, the VA does it well.