In Advance of Veterans Day, Bipartisan Coalition of Senators Introduces New Legislation to Improve Staffing at VA Health Centers

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, Oregon’s Senator Jeff Merkley, Senator Mike Rounds (R-SD), Senator Mark Warner (D-VA), and Senator Thom Tillis (R-NC) held a press conference in the U.S. Capitol to announce the introduction of the Veterans Health Care Staffing Improvement Act, bipartisan legislation to make common-sense changes in staffing policies at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and improve veterans care at VA health care facilities.

The legislation is also cosponsored by Senators Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Ron Wyden (D-OR).

At many VA health centers around the country, veterans face wait times of weeks or even months for an appointment. These severe roadblocks to providing timely and quality health care to veterans stem in part from a shortfall of tens of thousands of medical staff. The Veterans Health Care Staffing Improvement Act would reduce bureaucratic obstacles to make it easier for the VA to boost staffing at VA health centers and reduce wait times. 

“Our veterans have stepped up, taken the oath, and put on the uniform so that the rest of us can live in a country that is safer and more secure,” said Merkley. “They have stood up for us, and we must stand up for them. Long wait times put our veterans’ health in jeopardy and are simply unacceptable. It’s absurd that doctors can’t move from one VA hospital to another without significant red tape. It’s just common sense to eliminate unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles like these and to create a ‘docs-to-doctors’ pipeline from the military into the VA system.”

“It is our duty to make certain our veterans receive the care and support they have been promised,” said Rounds. “As a member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, I am committed to making improvements at the VA to benefit veterans and cut down on the red-tape our vets have to go through to get the health care benefits they were promised. The Veterans Health Care Staffing Improvement Act will let veterans receive health care closer to home by removing bureaucratic barriers for their providers.”

“Not long ago, a VA medical center in Virginia had one of the longest wait times in the nation for veterans attempting to access the care they have earned,” said Warner. “After repeat visits to that hospital, I finally saw their wait times come down to the national average. During my visit there and to other VA facilities in my state, I heard from local VA leadership again and again about their staffing challenges. This bipartisan proposal provides a commonsense, cost-effective solution to help ease hiring of qualified medical personnel so we can do better by all of our men and women who have worn the uniform.”

“This legislation is a textbook example of how members of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee are coming together to identify the challenges facing the VA, and then working together to come up with common-sense, bipartisan solutions,” said Senator Tillis. “The VA has struggled to recruit and retain physician assistants and nurse practitioners, which has exacerbated the issues already plaguing the VA system. The Veterans Health Care Staffing Improvement Act directly addresses this problem by reducing bureaucratic barriers and granting full practice authority to highly-trained medical professionals, which will make it easier for VA facilities across the nation to provide our veterans with the high quality care they need and deserve.”

“The men and women who have served our nation in uniform deserve the best health care we can offer,” said Shaheen. “This legislation will make common-sense changes at the VA that will encourage the hiring of more doctors and nurses with military backgrounds and improve the overall hiring process for VA medical staff.”

“Unnecessary red tape can limit the VA’s ability to provide our veterans with the care they deserve,” Brown said. “This bill would streamline the hiring of VA medical staff and let qualified health care workers treat more patients. These improvements would help curb the VA’s staffing shortfall so our nation’s veterans can have continue access to first-class medical care.” 

“Our military medical professionals are some of the best-trained, most experienced folks around when it comes to providing care,” Wyden said. “This bill will help the VA tap that resource, cutting red tape, hiring the trained medical professionals it desperately needs, and reducing wait times for our veterans at home.”

The legislation would make it easier for servicemembers who have served in medical roles to transfer directly into the VA system, make it easier to transfer or share medical staff and services across VA facilities, and allow Advanced Practice Registered Nurses and Physicians Assistants to provide a wider range of health care to patients, helping expand care in rural areas. 

“Docs-to-Doctors” Program to Help Servicemembers Leaving the Military Transition to the VA

To provide VA with a large pool of trained medical staff who are already serving their country, this program improves the ability of the VA to recruit veterans who served as health care providers while in the military by:

  • Requiring that VA receive a list of servicemembers who served in a health care capacity while in the military or as part of the Coast Guard and have filed for separation in the previous 12 months; and 
  • Treating these veterans as applicants from within the VA to allow for a more expeditious hiring process

Uniform Credentialing Standards

Currently, VA doctors have to “recredential” every time they change hospitals or provide services at a hospital outside of their VA regional healthcare system. VA doctors report that his can take from six weeks to three months. In a unified health care system like the VA, it needlessly limits the VA’s flexibility to have medical professionals provide services where they are most needed. 

The Veterans Health Care Staffing Improvement Act would require the VA Secretary to create uniform credentialing rules for medical professionals across the Veterans Health Administration. 

Full Practice Authority for Advanced Practice Registered Nurses (APRNs) and Physician Assistants

Advanced Practice Registered Nurses—nurses with post-graduate education in nursing—have advanced skills in either a specialist field or a generalist capacity, and are qualified for an advanced scope of practice. While many states allow them to practice across their full range of skills, giving health care systems better flexibility to meet patient needs, the VA has not yet granted APRNs this full practice authority.

The bill requires the Secretary to provide full practice authority to all APRNs and Physician Assistants in Veterans Health Administration, based on the scope of practice recommended by the appropriate professional organizations.  

The Veterans Health Care Staffing Improvement Act is supported by more than 40 veterans and health care organizations, including the Vietnam Veterans of America, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), the Reserve Officers Association (ROA), the Military Officers Association of America (MOAA), and the American Nurses Association.

A companion bill, led by Rep. Peter Defazio (D-OR), will be introduced in the House next week.