VA courts private clinics, but physicians hard to get for government employment

June 20, 2014

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is reaching out to private clinics as an emergency measure to ease patient access problems, while struggling to fill vacancies at its own clinics.

 

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), in a report released Thursday, says that 56,000 veterans have waited more than 90 days for initial appointments.. The VA contacted 70,000 patients currently waiting for care in attempts to schedule them for care at private clinics.

“There is still much more work to be done,” says Sloan D. Gibson, acting Secretary of Veteran’s Affairs. The department says that it will also release twice-monthly reports to increase transparency and is establishing a patient satisfaction program. “Trust is the foundation for everything we do. VA must be an organization built on transparency and accountability, and we will do everything we can to earn that trust one veteran at a time,” Gibson says.

The VA has been under scrutiny since news reports released in May detailed that up to 40 veterans may have died waiting to receive care from a Phoenix VA clinic. Reports of cover-ups, long wait times and corruption have surfaced at several other clinics. The FBI has opened a criminal investigation into the agency, starting with the Phoenix clinic. Eric Shinseki resigned as the secretary of the VA on May 30 because of the controversy. He had served in the position since 2009.

The VA has continued to cite the primary care physician shortage as one reason for the delays in care. The New York Times reported in May that the VA has 400 primary care physician vacancies.

But filling those positions might not be easy. A new survey from the Medicus Firm, a national physician staffing agency, found that few physicians are interested in working for the government. In its 2014 Practice Preference and Relocation Survey, the firm surveyed more than 2,200 physicians in a variety of specialties. Of those surveyed, only 2.5% of practicing physicians and 1.9% of training physicians indicated government or military employment as the practice setting most appealing to them.

Jim Stone, president of the Medicus Firm, said that the low percentages might indicate that physicians feel that working for the government may satisfy fewer of their professional priorities and needs.

“Whether the physician survey respondents’ opinions of government employment are based on perception, or reality, we don’t know. But, when recruiting and attempting to attract qualified candidates to any particular employer, perception is reality,” said Stone. “Demand for physicians is outpacing supply, particularly in rural areas and certain specialties such as primary care. Therefore, a healthcare organization’s brand as an employer is key to successful physician recruitment, and the recent news from the VA will most likely make their recruiting efforts even more challenging.”

The U.S. Senate passed a bill June 11 that would expand the VA’s contracts with private practices and hospitals, and hiring more medical professionals. The American Medical Association has asked state and local medical societies to create registries of providers who are willing to treat veterans. In 2013, the VA spent $4.8 billion on care at non-VA hospitals and clinics, according to the Washington Post.