Healthcare Business News

Senate bill would let VA hire more doctors, nurses

By Virgil Dickson
Posted: June 2, 2014 - 4:00 pm ET

The Veterans Affairs Department would be able to hire more doctors, nurses and other providers in an expedited manner under a new Senate bill filed by the chairman of the Veterans' Affairs Committee intended to ease the problems veterans are experiencing in accessing VA healthcare services.

The bill, the Restoring Veterans' Trust Act of 2014, was introduced by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who scheduled a hearing June 5 on his bill. It also would allow paying off student debt for doctors and nurses who come to work in the VA system.

Experts say one of the reasons for the long waits for primary-care appointments in the VA system is that the VA has trouble hiring enough clinicians. It reportedly has nearly 400 positions unfilled for primary-care doctors, who receive lower salaries in the VA than those who work in the private sector.

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In addition, Sanders' bill would standardize the processes the VA uses to refer and pay for veterans' care in non-VA facilities when the VA is unable to provide them the care they need in a timely manner. It also requires the VA secretary to prioritize contracts with federally qualified health centers, community health centers, medical facilities funded by the Indian Health Service, and the Defense Department to provide hospital care, medical services, and other healthcare to veterans for the purpose of shortening wait times. In addition, it also authorizes the VA to enter into 27 major medical facility leases in 18 states and Puerto Rico.

His bill comes days after the VA released details of its new Accelerating Care Initiative. Under the initiative, VA facilities must offer veterans a referral to an outside provider if they don't have the capacity to give an earlier appointment to any new patient who is on a waitlist or has a visit scheduled more than 30 days out.

VA Inspector General Richard Griffin found last month that 1,700 veterans in need of care in Phoenix were kept off the facility's official waitlist and that the average wait time was 115 days, instead of the maximum 14-day wait outlined in VA policy. Griffin also found evidence that administrators of VA facilities around the country have falsified data to hide long waiting times.

Republicans and Democrats are vying to show the public that they care about the VA problems that have come to light in recent months and that they have a better solution to those problems as the clock ticks down toward the November elections.

Sanders' bill also gives the VA secretary authority to immediately remove incompetent senior executives based on poor job performance. He blocked a bipartisan House bill that would also have increased accountability because of his concerns about potential litigation and politicization of the agency.

Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), who chairs the House Veterans Affairs' Committee, said he was disappointed and confused by Sanders' refusal to consider the House bill, which passed on a 390-33 vote in May.

Meanwhile, Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) has introduced a bill that would establish a new Office of the Medical Inspector within the Office of the Undersecretary for Health of the Veterans Affairs Department. The bill also would provide funding to investigate VA facilities around the country and allow the Justice Department to probe any criminal wrongdoing.

It is unclear if Tester's bill will be discussed at the June 5 hearing. It also could get wrapped into the larger legislation proposed by Sanders, a Tester spokeswoman said.

Follow Virgil Dickson on Twitter: @MHvdickson

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