Some Veterans Affairs Reforms Undermine Medical Recruitment Efforts

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The Department of Veterans Affairs is suffering a shortfall of physicians, especially in mental health. A steady flow of scandals and attempts at strict reform by Congress may be hurting recruitment.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

A 66-year-old Vietnam veteran drove to the parking lot of the VA Hospital in Bay Pines, Fla., last week and killed himself with a handgun. The very same day, the inspector general of the VA reported the department hasn't done enough to recruit psychiatrists. And it's not just mental health practitioners. The VA has a shortage of doctors and nurses across the board. NPR's Quil Lawrence reports that some of the attempts to reform the department may be hurting recruitment.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: VA Secretary Bob McDonald started visiting medical schools within days of taking the job last year. He's reportedly given his cell number to med students and called them personally to pitch a job at the VA.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BOB MCDONALD: As you know, we're recruiting. I've been to over a dozen medical schools myself, recruiting mental health professionals and primary care physicians. There's a shortage in the country, but we're making great progress.

LAWRENCE: That was McDonald speaking this month at a special field hearing of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee held in Gainesville, Ga.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MCDONALD: I've got gaps I'm trying to fill. I'm hiring 1,100 new doctors. I'm hiring 4,000 new nurses.

LAWRENCE: Congress passed a VA reform bill last year with funding for about 10,000 new hires. But Congress has also been trying to make it easier to fire VA staff. Firing someone with a federal government job can take months. Even the VA employees at the center of recent scandals have usually been transferred or put on paid leave instead. But singling out the VA that way, McDonald says, is hurting his recruitment drive.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MCDONALD: We can't hire the people when members of Congress are going to somehow differentiate the VA versus other departments of government. That doesn't cause people in government to want to work for the VA.

LAWRENCE: Georgia Republican Johnny Isakson was unconvinced.

JOHNNY ISAKSON: Not wanting to be treated differently is a good statement to make, and I understand that. I think it's also critical to understand that we've had some unique problems within the VA that we need to find a way to deal with.

LAWRENCE: Isakson says the best way to get quality workers at VA is to fix what he called systemic failures at the department. Isakson supports a bill that would make it simple and quick to dismiss VA employees. That won't make the VA attractive in a job market where hospitals are already competing for doctors and nurses, says Marilyn Park. She's with the AFGE, a union that represents many VA employees.

MARILYN PARK: It's scaring them off because if you've put all that time into training and you're early on in your career, why would you go somewhere where you're set up fail by Congress and the media looking for everything that's a failure? I mean, I don't know a health care system that hasn't had problems, incidences that need to be reported and corrected.

LAWRENCE: The VA is pushing ahead with other ways to recruit, including partnerships with medical schools and a raise in the base pay for some doctors and dentists. So far, they've hired about 6,400 of the 10,000 positions Congress funded a year ago. Quil Lawrence, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.