To find out how good VA health care is, ask veterans who've used it. That's what the Disabled American Veterans did last fall. The results, which the DAV provided to The Gazette this week, were enlightening: • Veterans reported waiting an average of 37.76 days for VA outpatient primary care with one in five waiting more than 60 days. • They waited an average of 24.8 days for VA inpatient treatment with 8.6 percent of the veterans saying they waited more than 60 days. • In every area of care surveyed, veterans ranked the quality of non-VA care they received higher than the quality they received at VA facilities. • On the positive side, the veterans generally said they received good care from the VA. And a majority felt they had been treated with respect by staff in facilities that were clean. Pharmacy was the service used by the greatest number of veterans and they gave VA pharmacy services a higher quality rating than any other VA service. • Veterans were more likely to use the VA for primary and specialty care, and non-VA services for inpatient, emergency and urgent care. In short, they mostly look to the VA for care when they can wait a while. • Waiting times were the biggest reason why veterans gave VA care poor ratings. Distance to the VA facility was the second biggest complaint with only 25 percent of those who gave the VA poor quality ratings saying it was the care itself that was poor. This is how the U.S. government rations care to veterans. Long waiting times and distances to VA facilities reduce demand for VA care. A majority of veterans answering the survey fought in the Vietnam War or in World War II. This year and for many years to come, a new, large group of combat veterans will be entering the VA system. Just one example of the care needs of this new veterans group was mentioned in the Jan. 31 edition of Newsweek: Doctors estimate that 15 to 20 percent of soldiers returning from Iraq will suffer from some degree of post-traumatic stress disorder. With hundreds of thousands of people deployed over the years, that's tens of thousands of veterans needing care for this serious, but treatable, disorder. Likewise, there are thousands of soldiers seriously injured by explosions who will need special medical care for a lifetime. The VA must gear up to meet the needs of the new veterans. And it must improve care for those already in the system. Imagine any other hospitals forcing prospective patients to wait two months, or even one month, to be admitted. Who would stand for such delays? Imagine taking a 3 1/2-hour drive from Billings to Helena (in winter or summer) for health services that non-VA facilities provide right in Billings. Who would go for the road trip? Yet that is the way the VA system operates. This year's $28 billion VA health-care budget is $1.7 billion less than the "independent budget" recommended by a group of national veterans organizations and $1.5 billion less than the House Veterans Affairs Committee recommended. Although VA health care is supposed to have received a slight increase in funding this year, a DAV spokesman in Washington said the budget actually represents a decrease because of money that the agency is required to transfer to other agencies, an across-the-board cut in most domestic spending and other budgeting maneuvers. We call on our Montana and Wyoming congressional delegations to be leaders in recognizing the health-care needs of veterans and providing the funding to meet those needs. As Congress and President Bush decide how to deal with ballooning budget deficits, they must adequately fund VA health care. America has an obligation to care for those who have already sacrificed their health for the sake of this country. VA health care isn't new spending; it's paying on old debts to our nation's heroes. Survey details Disabled American Veterans is an organization of 1.2 million men and women who all live with disabilities that resulted from their military duty. The DAV contracted with Princeton Research Group Inc. to survey its members about services they have received from VA health care. Last fall, the survey was mailed to a random sample of DAV members living in each of 23 VA regional networks. More than 12,600 surveys were returned, including 651 surveys from the region of Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and Utah. The DAV survey broke down responses by regional VA network. In the network serving Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and Utah, veterans reported waiting an average of 29.5 days for inpatient VA care. Veterans in this region were twice as likely as those across the country to wait more than 60 days for hospital care with 16.5 percent saying they had waited two months or more.