VA-bashing has become a popular activity. But is it fair?

A recent commentary in the Star Tribune by Paul Riedner with the headline “Forget the VA: We can help heal trauma of PTSD” (March 12) illustrates how far a writer can go and still be printed in a major American newspaper.

The article basically tries to win approval and money toward a group called the Veteran Resilience Project, a network of therapists who employ a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) called eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, or EMDR. It does this by attacking the Department of Veterans Affairs, which, of course is a major provider of care for PTSD patients.

EMDR has been shown to have some benefit for PTSD sufferers. Scientific American magazine said that it is better than no treatment at all and also better than simple counseling. The magazine, however, said there was no evidence that EMDR is more efficacious than the standard behavioral treatments that have been used for years at the VA.

Which isn’t to say that new approaches aren’t necessary. There has been a breakthrough in recent years in innovative ways to treat PTSD, many of which the VA employs. These include acupuncture, prolonged-exposure therapy, cognitive-processing therapy and, at some VA hospitals, EMDR. We are all interested in providing the best possible care to those who suffer from the stress of war.

If the practitioners of EMDR can help veterans, more power to them. If Mr. Riedner can have a fundraiser that helps pay his salary so he can spread the word about EMDR, have at it.

But we don’t understand the need to tear down what in reality is a very good medical system that is dedicated to all the health needs of veterans.

It should be understood that nobody watches the VA more closely than the American Legion. It’s one of our primary missions to bird-dog the agency and push it to perform at its highest level. It was because of the legion that the VA has undergone major leadership change and is pursuing new initiatives to fix the long waiting lists and other bureaucratic problems.

But it must be said that the VA has been judged in several national studies to be a very high quality provider of care. It should be. The American taxpayer spends enough to sustain a high level.

Inside the walls of the VA medical centers, and the dozens of outpatient clinics the VA runs across the state, are incredibly dedicated people who go far beyond their job descriptions to care for veterans.

More than that, the VA does extensive research into PTSD and other veteran afflictions that has been critically valuable in advancing the quality of care. At the Minneapolis Veterans Medical Center, for example, the Brain Sciences Center has produced cutting-edge research on diagnosing PTSD in the brain that has been published internationally.

Most troubling in Riedner’s attack on the VA is the use of questionable statistics and unproven-yet-incredible damaging statements.

One of these bogus statistics is that 60 percent to 80 percent of veterans who go through VA PTSD training drop out. Nationally, studies have shown that the dropout rate for VA treatments and EMDR are about the same. At the Minneapolis VA, 98 percent of PTSD patients said they would recommend the clinic to another veteran.

And then there’s the statement: “The VA has a disruptive-behavior committee that has been used by staff members to retaliate against outspoken veterans or whistleblowers.” If that statement is true, it should be on the front page of the newspaper and not buried in a commentary piece. The fact is that accusation was investigated by the Office of Inspector General, and the Minneapolis VA was cleared of the charge two weeks ago.

The VA is not perfect. Neither is Fairview nor the Mayo Clinic. But this constant license to bash the VA without proof may in the end have a detrimental effect on the ability of the agency to do its job. If you take the time to go to the VA, you will find hundreds of professionals and others who go the extra yard to help veterans each and every day. Their hearts are in their jobs. They do what they do well. But unfounded attacks are bound to sour the expectations of veterans and to hurt the morale of the caregivers.

Let’s be careful. Let’s give the VA a fair shake.


Al Zdon is the communications director for the Minnesota American Legion.