The American Federation of Government Employees blamed understaffing for the long waits for medical care at Veterans Administration hospitals and urged Congress to act quickly on a recently introduced bill that will fund the hiring of more frontline staff.
“The prevalence of long wait lists are a symptom of the vast understaffing of VA medical facilities,” said David Cox, president of AFGE. “In order to reduce wait times and improve access to VA care that veterans earned through service to our country, we must fix the number one cause of this crisis: understaffing. There is no solving the wait list issue without first solving the staffing issue.”
USA Today reports that more than 57,000 veterans in need of medical care have had to wait more than 90 days to see a doctor. An additional 64,000 veterans who sought care over the last ten years at VA facilities never got to see a doctor.
According to AFGE, since 2009 2 million veterans have entered the VA health system but over the same period of time staffing has increased only 9 percent.
The VA’s inability to keep up with its rapidly rising caseload is due to Congress’ failure to properly fund the services that the VA provides.
To address this problem, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. John McCain have crafted a bill that increases VA funding by $500 million. The funding would be used to hire more doctors and nurses.
“The measure provides for the hiring of new medical personnel in an expedited manner at hospitals and clinics that lack enough doctors, nurses and other medical staff to provide quality care in a timely manner and ensures dedicated funding is available to hire health care professionals,” said Sanders.
The bill will also allow the VA to lease 26 new medical facilities that would expand access to care and give veterans living more than 40 miles from a VA hospital or clinic to use private clinics instead of the VA.
Sanders said that the bill whose title is the Veterans Access to Care Through Choice, Accountability, and Transparency Act of 2014 is not perfect but it is a good first step toward improving veterans health care.
“While this is not the bill that I would have written, we have taken a significant step forward with this agreement,” said Sanders.
One problems with the bill is that it expands the outsourcing of health care services.
“As many Veterans Service Organizations have expressed, such a move could jeopardize the quality of patient care since veterans will be left largely on their own to navigate care between providers lacking specialized knowledge of this population, without the critical care coordination for their complex medical needs that only the VA can provide,” said Cox.
Cox said that outsourcing should be used only as a last resort and pointed to the great strides that the VA has made in expanding access in rural areas through smart investments in telehealth and mobile clinics.
“We need to double-down on these proven systems and deliver to our veterans the quality, specialized care they earned through their service to our nation,” he said.
Cox also said that while it’s good that the bill allows for the hiring of more doctors and nurses, it should have increased funding for more support staff and more clinic space.
“The proposed $500 million to hire new doctors and nurses is critical to getting veterans in the door and provided with quality care,” said Cox. “However, we cannot forget that our medical teams need the proper infrastructure to ensure quality care, patient privacy and clinic productivity. Therefore, as VA increases the number of front-line providers at its facilities, it also needs to provide them with enough support staff and clinic space to get the job done.”
Sanders is hopeful that the Senate will take action on the compromise soon, but there may be a problem with its passage in the House.
The House recently passed its version of the VA bill, but it doesn’t included the $500 million for hiring new staff that is the key feature of the Senate bill.