Portland VA Budget Crunch Cancels Surgeries


Portland VA Budget Crunch Cancels Surgeries

In the last few weeks the Portland, Oregon VA hospital has been sending a letter to veterans informing them that their non-“life-or-limb” surgery has been cancelled or postponed. The Portland VA facility, with a satellite campus in Vancouver, Washington, serves veterans in Oregon, southwest Washington and parts of Northern California.

It all boils down to dollars, or lack of them. The Portland VA, like every VA facility, is caught in a funding crisis with no end in sight. Funding for the VA has increased every year, Internet myths aside. But the dollars have not kept up with the number of veterans seeking health care. While VA funding has increased about 50 percent in the last eight years, the number of veterans applying for benefits has increased nearly 150 percent in the same time frame.

Who are these veterans? There are two major groups. The first is veterans who, because of a sagging economy, are now unemployed or under-employed, have no health care benefits, have never used the VA system before, and are now applying for VA benefits for the first time. The second is veterans on Medicare who have never used the VA for health care, but find the savings offered by the VA system necessary to maintain a decent standard of living. Simple math shows that the $7 VA co-pay for prescriptions can be a great savings compared to Medicare prescription costs. One veteran interviewed for this article stated he is saving over $400 a month because he no longer uses Medicare for his prescriptions.

Patricia Forsyth, Public Affairs Officer for the Portland, Oregon VA hospital, cites “a dramatic increase in the number of veterans” who now seek health care as the reason surgeries are being cancelled or postponed. “Some examples of surgeries that might be postponed are arthroscopies (diagnostic or treatment), total joint replacements and hernia repairs,” she said.

Ms. Forsyth could not give exact figures as to how many veterans are having surgeries postponed or cancelled, but stressed that no surgeries for service-connected conditions are being affected. It is important to note that there is no such thing as elective surgery at the VA. Every surgery has been scheduled by a medical doctor who has ascertained that the veteran has a debilitating condition that can only be remedied by a surgical procedure.

Ms. Forsyth cannot anticipate when the cancelled or postponed surgeries might be rescheduled other than to say it would be as soon as possible. When asked for an estimate as to what time that would be, Ms. Forsyth said, “I would guess until spring [2005].” It is a difficult situation, as 2004 monies have thinned to the point where the Portland VA cannot keep its operating rooms up and running. Currently there is no 2005 budget and everyone is holding their breath, hoping for the best. A document leaked from the White House indicated a $910 million cut in the 2006 VA budget (although the administration has backed off on this number).

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