Robert McDonald
The VA wants you

Veterans Affairs needs more DOs, Secretary McDonald says

The new head of the Department of Veterans Affairs shares his plans for rebuilding the VA and info about new opportunities for DOs.

DOs and osteopathic medical students, the Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald has a message for you: “I want you to come work for the VA.”

This is what McDonald told a room full of roughly 800 members of the profession at DO Day on Capitol Hill earlier this month. As a special guest speaker, McDonald explained why he feels DOs are particularly suited to take care of veterans.

“We need more providers, especially in rural areas,” he said. “We know that many doctors of osteopathy locate in rural areas and have rural practices.”

McDonald also addressed the scandal that gripped the agency last year, his plans to rebuild the VA in its wake, and new opportunities available to DOs.

Last spring, news emerged that veterans were experiencing excessively long wait times to get health care at some VA facilities. An internal report stated that tens of thousands of newly returning veterans waited at least 90 days for health care. The former VA secretary, Eric Shinseki, resigned amid the scandal; McDonald came on board in July and is revamping the agency.

A new direction

To reorganize the VA, McDonald outlined five major objectives.

1) Improving service to veterans: The VA will work with private-sector executives at Starbucks, Disney and Ritz-Carlton to develop ways to provide veterans with a better customer service experience.

2) Enhancing the VA employee experience: The VA will provide more training, development and advancement opportunities for staff.

3) Improving internal support services: Doing this will allow physicians and clinical providers to better focus on caring for veterans.

4) Establishing a culture of continuous improvement: Training all staff in the Lean Six Sigma methodology is one goal in this vein.

5) Enhancing strategic partnerships: The VA will work more closely with external organizations that serve veterans, such as the Home Base Program, a Boston organization that matches veterans with mental health professionals.

Opportunities for DOs

Following last year’s scandal, Congress passed the Veterans’ Access to Care through Choice, Accountability, and Transparency Act of 2014, which among other changes will increase VA residency positions by up to 1,500 over three years. The VA currently funds about 10,500 residency slots, and last year just 60 positions went to DOs, McDonald noted.

“There’s potential for major growth and osteopathic affiliations to use these new residency positions,” he noted. “The osteopathic medical community is well-positioned to assist us in taking care of veterans.”

Osteopathic institutions interested in working with the VA to develop residency positions can visit the agency’s Office of Academic Affiliations for more information.

The act also authorized the VA to increase its loan-repayment offer to certain physicians from $60,000 to $120,000.

McDonald also noted that VA physicians are now getting paid more.

“One of the first things I did as secretary was increase salary bands for all the VA doctors,” he said. “So we are competitive with the private sector.”

Inspired DOs and medical students in the audience took to Twitter to note the increased funding and other highlights of McDonald’s speech.

Q&A

Following his speech, McDonald took questions from DOs and students on rural health care access, government bureaucracy and veteran homelessness.

“I was wondering how the VA approaches affordable housing?” asked Carolyn Parks, OMS II, of the A.T. Still University-School of Osteopathic Medicine in Arizona in Mesa. Parks relayed her experience with veterans who struggled to find affordable housing, and she noted that housing falls under the scope of holistic health care.

McDonald explained that President Barack Obama has committed to ending veteran homelessness by the end of 2015 and that the VA is currently helping veterans find homes by using vouchers to provide veterans with housing, working with city mayors to combat veteran homelessness in certain locales, and creating new veterans treatment courts, which help veterans obtain substance abuse and mental health treatment.

After the Q&A session, attendee Frank Cusimano, OMS II, told The DO that he was impressed by McDonald’s dedication to reforming the VA.

“McDonald’s outline for quality improvement sounds like an excellent plan,” said Cusimano, who attends the Midwestern University-Arizona College of Osteopathic Medicine in Glendale. “And the focus on rural medicine will draw more osteopathic physicians who are passionate about serving those populations.”

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