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WASHINGTON -- Anxiety over the need for worker retention and stable leadership has prompted two members of Arkansas' congressional delegation to introduce legislation aimed at providing Veterans Affairs facilities with sufficient staff and management.
The Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee advanced one of the measures -- the CAREERS Act -- earlier this month. The legislation would increase salaries for physicians and clinicians, as well as provide employees with resources such as expanded eligibility for reimbursing professional education costs.
The Senate bill additionally includes language requiring the federal VA secretary to put together a plan for filling any vacant medical center director openings within 180 days. The provision -- titled the VACANT Act -- has companion legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives.
U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., introduced the CAREERS Act with Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont.; Boozman and Tester serve on the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, and Tester is the body's chairman. U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark., introduced the VACANT Act in the House of Representatives.
The CAREERS Act would raise the $400,000 pay cap for physicians and professionals such as optometrists and dentists to make salaries more competitive with private sector opportunities. The legislation would additionally cover licensing exam costs for future personnel involved in VA scholarship programs and expand eligibility for reimbursing staff for professional education.
The legislation is a response to ongoing staffing shortages within VA facilities. The Department of Veterans Affairs' Office of Inspector General, in a study released last July, reported an increase in staff shortages across the country; each of the nation's 139 Veterans Health Administration facilities had at least one "severe occupational staffing shortage."
"As I go around the country -- whether it's rural Arkansas or rural wherever -- it's simply difficult to get any sort of health care professionals, much less at the VA," Boozman, of Rogers, told committee members during a Feb. 16 meeting.
John Donovan, the adjutant with the Disabled American Veterans Department of Arkansas, said the VA system has been dealing with staff shortages for years, but the coronavirus pandemic worsened the issue as professionals worked additional hours.
"When covid hit, it just brought everybody down," he explained to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. "A lot of people left, and that kind of hit everybody."
Veterans can seek medical treatment from private practices and other facilities, but Donovan, a Navy veteran and Conway resident, said doctors at these facilities may not understand veterans' issues like VA staff.
"For example, if I was to go in for a back issue, and I'm talking to the doctor and I make a statement about if this doesn't get fixed, I'll fix it myself, that would be key for a VA doctor to hear that and say, 'OK, let's have you talk to mental health as well while you're here,'" he said.
"A normal civilian doctor may not get that. They may not get why that statement was made."
Donovan continued: "The VA health care system is designed to not only work within your specialty, but it's to listen to things outside of your specialty. That's part of their training."
Lawmakers made steps in the last Congress to improve the VA's workforce, including a VA Rural Recruitment and Hiring Plan in a law expanding treatment for veterans exposed to toxins via burn pits.
"[Doctors] have the ability to make a lot more money than the VA can pay," Donovan acknowledged. "We want them to stay with us, so the best thing we can do is let's move their pay to where it's a comparative stature to their civilian counterparts and give them the additional training that is needed."
Both Boozman and Womack tie the VACANT Act to leadership issues involving the Fayetteville VA Medical Center. The facility did not have a permanent director between May 2021 and early this year.
Officials in January named Dr. George Velez as the next leader of the Veterans Health Care System of the Ozarks, which includes the Fayetteville medical center and seven outpatient facilities in Arkansas, Missouri and Oklahoma.
"We went more than 18 months without a director," Boozman said during the Feb. 16 meeting.
Donovan said having a permanent director provides stability to a facility, stating the director "sets the tone."
"If there are any issues, the director needs to know about it and they need to stay in place long enough to be able to take care of it," he said.
"Not all of our problems that we come across in a VA facility are something that can change overnight."
In a statement to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Womack, of Rogers, said keeping dependable VA leadership and staffing is essential in ensuring veterans have quality health care.
"The VACANT Act is based on remedying persistent staffing challenges. We have a duty to ensure proper leadership is in place at medical centers delivering proper oversight and certifying veteran's needs are being met," he said.
"This bill -- alongside other efforts -- is crucial to fulfilling our promise to the men and women who served in uniform."
Womack met Velez during the House's recent two-week district work period.
Senators will refine the legislation as the year continues. Tester has agreed to hold another hearing concerning requests from VA officials. During the Feb. 16 meeting, Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, said he reached a deal with Tester and Boozman on "common-sense guardrails" related to pay increases in the CAREERS Act.
Donovan and DAV officials will visit Washington, D.C. this week to speak to lawmakers about their legislative priorities for the current Congress. This outreach will include delivering a presentation to the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee on Tuesday.
To read this story in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette click Here