A new Senate bill was introduced earlier this month that aims to create a pathway for veterans to become educated as physician assistants (PAs). The bill, titled the Grow Our Own Directive (GOOD): Physician Assistant Employment and Education Act of 2015, is a creative approach to solving two problems: high wait times at Veterans Affairs (VA) hospitals and high unemployment rates for discharged military medics and corpsmen.
Barriers to Employment
The most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers show that post-9/11 veterans have a slightly higher unemployment rate than their civilian peers and veterans as a whole. Medics and corpsmen are no exception. In fact, military medics and corpsmen have a particularly difficult time finding employment in the medical field because their military training is often not recognized by states when granting medical licenses.
“One of the major roadblocks those separating from the military face in their transition to the civilian job market is the fact that many professional licensing and credentialing standards vary from state to state,” Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, said to Stars and Stripes. “I urge states to adopt standards that will fully recognize veterans’ experience, and I will continue to support VA’s programs putting these professionals to work helping their fellow veterans.”
Path to Becoming a PA
The VA began taking steps to correct this employment problem in December 2012 with the Intermediate Care Technicians (ICT) program. Under the program, former military medics and corpsmen worked at Veterans Health Administration (VHA) Emergency Departments with a scope of practice that is more advanced than a traditional VA Emergency Department technician.
The program was successful, and in June 2015, the VA established the VA Corpsman and Medic Vocation Education and Training Program (VA CAMVET), which provides a pathway for those in the ICT program to pursue education to become a PA.
However, ICTs are not guaranteed access to the VA scholarship funds, which limits the effectiveness of the program. Supporting the GOOD bill at a federal level would ensure ICTs have access to VA scholarship funds. It will also require the VA to establish a national strategic plan to recruit and retain PAs, including the adoption of standards leading to competitive pay for PAs employed by the VA.
PA Shortage in the VA
A review of the VA staffing shortage by the Office of Inspector General showed that PAs were the third largest shortage with a vacancy rate of 25 percent. Medical officers and nurses were the two highest.
The PA shortage in the VA is a bit ironic considering the PA profession was born from the military. When Eugene A. Stead Jr., MD, of the Duke University Medical Center, put together the first class of PAs in 1965, he selected four Navy Hospital Corpsmen and based his PA curriculum on the fast-track training he received during World War II.
However, according to Stars and Stripes, the recent boom in popularity of the PA profession has made it more difficult for medics and corpsman to get into school. According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, PA employment is expected to increase at a steady rate of 30 percent each year, which is much faster than the average for all other occupations.
The GOOD would hopefully provide relief to the VA, which is struggling to meet patient demand.
Of the 22 million U.S. veterans, approximately 9 million are cared for by the VA system, and it is estimated that the VA can only care for 40 percent of those veterans. Adding to the demand is the expected one million service members who will be discharged from the military over the next several years.