VA Hospital Fiasco a Harbinger on Nation's Physician Shortage

John Commins, June 4, 2014

The big problem at the VA is that it's competing for doctors with every hospital in the country, physician practices, insurance companies, urgent care centers, retail clinics, and community health centers.

This ongoing scandal surrounding long waiting times for physician appointments at Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals has generated an array of justifiable responses including grief, anger and embarrassment.

It should not, however, generate surprise. The long waiting lines at the 150 VA hospitals across the nation are largely because of staff shortages. The New York Times reports that the VA is trying to recruit 400 primary care physicians.

American Federation of Government Employees National President J. David Cox Sr. was spot on when he said: "There is no solving the wait list issue without first solving the staffing issue."

This problem won't be solved in a few weeks or with reassuring sound bites, quick fixes, the resignation of VA Chief Eric Shinseki, made-for-TV Congressional inquiries, campaign grandstanding, or even money.

This shortage will last as long as it takes to figure out a way to treat people without a reliance on primary care physicians, or until we can train sufficient numbers of new primary care physicians to replace the growing ranks of their retiring older colleagues. We're talking years, perhaps a decade or longer.

We've been hearing about the "looming physician shortage" for decades. It looms no longer. It has dropped upon us and it's not going away soon.

John Commins

John Commins is a senior editor at HealthLeaders Media.


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