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Rural Veterans and Access to High-Quality Care for High-Risk Surgeries

Objectives. To determine whether older Veterans Health Administration (VA) health care enrollees obtain most high-risk surgeries in non-VA hospitals under Medicare, whether residence in less populous areas increases this reliance on non-VA care or the likelihood of obtaining it in hospitals with higher mortality rates, and whether directing VA enrollees to better hospitals would add a substantial travel burden.

Data Sources. VA and Medicare hospital discharge data from 2000 and 2001 for VA enrollees 65 years or older who received any of 14 high-risk elective procedures, including heart, vascular, and cancer surgeries.

Study Design/Data Extraction. We compared urban, suburban, and rural patients on use of VA versus non-VA hospitals, use of non-VA hospitals of higher versus lower mortality rates, travel times to get to these hospitals, and the additional travel burden if they had gone to lower mortality hospitals.

Principal Findings. Regardless of residence, VA enrollees obtained most high-risk surgeries in non-VA hospitals. Urban veterans were most likely to get heart or cancer surgeries in lower mortality hospitals, but rural veterans were most likely to get vascular surgeries in lower mortality hospitals. Average travel times to lower or higher mortality hospitals did not differ greatly.

Conclusions. Accessing better hospitals need not add a great travel burden for rural veterans.

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