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Military update: VA hospitals in need of more personnel

The Department of Veterans Affairs needs “tens of thousands” more personnel working in VA hospitals and clinics to meet patient demand, the new VA Secretary, Robert “Bob” McDonald, told lawmakers last week at a hearing of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.

The size of the staff shortage, McDonald said, explains why VA has launched “a big recruiting effort,” which he kicked off recently with visits to Duke University and University of Pennsylvania medical schools to tell students there why “VA is where they want to work.”

Congress is pressing to clarify VA staff shortage as the department struggles to recover from a patient wait-time scandal, demand for care grows due to a force drawdown, and the nation at large also copes with a shortage of health workers.

McDonald got more specific than some senators expected, at one point estimating the VA staff shortage at 28,000 against current staffing of 300,000.

McDonald attributed that figure to his deputy, Sloan Gibson, who was acting secretary after retired Army Gen. Eric Shinseki resigned in May.

When 28,000 elicited a “Wow” from Sen. Bernie Sanders, Independent-Vermont, committee chairman, McDonald added that it includes both “clinicians and other employees.”

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, later challenged the figure, telling McDonald VA can’t hold a reliable number on its medical staff shortage before it completes an ongoing study of staff productivity and patient demand.

“How can you make a determination that you need 28,000 medical staff,” Tester asked. “I mean you’re a wonder-worker, probably, but in fact that information still hasn’t been hammered out.”

McDonald conceded the point.

“We are going through a process right now,” the secretary acknowledged, “where we are, location by location, specialty by specialty, (trying) to understand how many people we really need.”

Carolyn M. Clancy, a physician and interim under secretary for health at VA, is leading that process. She told Tester it should be completed by year’s end and will show both the number of clinicians VA needs and support staff “to make them as efficient and productive as possible.”

Tom Philpott can be contacted at Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, Va. 20120-1111, or by e-mail at:

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