THE BLOG
12/05/2013 06:50 pm ET Updated Feb 04, 2014

The Next Backlog: Obamacare Brings Dysfunctional VA Model to Broader Health Market

With the Obamcare roll-out looking more and more like a slow motion train wreck, you might think it couldn't get any worse. Surely, you imagine, once they address the website problems, premium cost increases and losing healthcare, things will improve, right?

I wouldn't bet on it. In fact, I'm comfortable predicting that the unhappy experience Americans are having with the president's misbegotten health care venture is only beginning.

I'm confident in that prediction because, as a U.S. military veteran, I've already witnessed the wages of government-run health care at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). If we can learn anything from the VA's legendary mismanagement, it's that dysfunction isn't a bug when it comes to government health care -- it's a feature.

While the difficulties with the Obamcare website have been well-documented, other looming problems with the law's implementation will gradually become clear. In a November 10 Washington Post op-ed, health care expert Jon Kingsdale, who oversaw the launch of the Massachusetts health insurance exchange, detailed those problems.

Kingsdale notes that if and when the Healthcare.gov site is at last fully functional, it will eventually mean millions of new health insurance customers. That means that an extraordinarily large volume of data will need to be verified and millions of premium payments collected. It's not difficult to imagine how that growth in demand could result in a massive backlog as insurers struggle to keep up, Kingsdale warns.

If you're a military veteran who has had dealings with the VA, that word -- "backlog" -- is depressingly familiar.

In recent years, backlogs in processing VA benefits claims have resulted in veterans waiting for months and even years for their applications to be adjudicated. As of December 2, the VA was reporting 693,377 pending benefits claims awaiting action, with 392,473 of those having waited more than 125 days.

To put those numbers in perspective, the VA provides services to only about 8.8 million beneficiaries. Yet even with that relatively small number of clients, the VA has difficulty satisfying demand, though Congress has provided the department with generous budgets and staffing levels (most Americans are surprised to learn the VA is the second largest federal department, eclipsed only by the Department of Defense).

Talk to any veteran who's had his or her life on hold for months (or years) while their claim awaits processing, and they'll tell you that it's the waiting and the uncertainty that's so distressing. As their benefits applications are submitted to an unresponsive, unaccountable and labyrinthine bureaucracy, they can do nothing but wait until their turn arrives.

With Obamacare, the president is taking that questionable model of government-run care and adapted it to the larger health care market. It doesn't take a large stretch of imagination to imagine the bureaucratic slowdowns and long wait times that tens of millions of U.S. health care consumers will experience as Obamacare is fully implemented.

In March, the Center for Investigative Reporting, which has done remarkable work chronicling the VA's failures in serving veterans, offered a stinging assessment of the agency's performance.

"The [VA's] ability to quickly provide service-related benefits has virtually collapsed under President Barack Obama," the CIR concluded. Although the VA has made progress in reducing the backlog since March, it's been largely through a massive infusion of overtime work and the slowing pace of new claims, rather than a sudden burst of competence in the department.

Similarly, we can expect that Obamacare will lead to a similar, and likely more enduring, collapse in the health care sector. Long waits for care, less choice, endless bureaucracy and crushing complexity -- those are the hallmarks of the VA benefits system today. And they're what we can expect for the future of Obamacare.

Pete Hegseth is the CEO of Concerned Veterans for America, and the former executive director of Vets for Freedom. Pete is an infantry officer in the Army National Guard, and has served tours in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo Bay.