Perfect Storm for VA: More Patients, Fewer Doctors

Perfect Storm for VA: More Patients, Fewer Doctors

It’s been the perfect storm that has overwhelmed the VA’s health care system. The VA has endured large year-over-year increases in enrollments in its health care system and continued difficulties in hiring and retaining medical professionals.

And that means veterans and their families are woefully underserved by the current system.

The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service published a report this month that shows these changes since 2001:

  • The number of veterans enrolled in the VA health care system has increased by 78 percent.
  • Where the percentage of the total number of veterans enrolled in the VA health care system was 20 percent in 2001 (approximately 5 million out of 26 million), that number today stands a 42 percent (approximately 9 million out of 21.6 million).
  • Since 2003, between 63 and 65 percent of enrolled veterans have used VA health care each year.
  • The number of non-veteran patients (family members of veterans) has increased faster than the number of veteran patients, as a percentage.
  • Non-veteran patients in fiscal year 2014 represented 11 percent of all visits to VA hospitals and clinics.

Family members of veterans are eligible to enroll in the VA health care system under certain circumstances, like spouses of permanently disabled veterans or spouses of active duty military who died during service can access care through the VA’s Civilian Health and Medical Program.

The growing number of enrollees in the system is meeting with the reality of a shortage of medical professionals, and the VA’s inability to retain those they have and entice new hires into its ranks.

The New York Times reported that the VA is currently trying to hire 400 primary care doctors (in 2013, the VA employed 5,100 primary care physicians.

“The doctors are good but they are overworked, and they feel inadequate in the face of the inordinate demands made on them,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal, (D-Conn.) and a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, told The Times. “The exploding workload is suffocating them.”

The just-passed bill in the Senate provides $500 million to the VA to hire more doctors and nurses. The Congressional Budget Office estimates the Senate’s version of the VA fix bill will ultimately cost $50 billion annually to taxpayers.

The CBO analysts said VA now covers about 30 percent, or an average $5,200, of those veterans’ annual health care costs, excluding long-term care.

A look at the rise in veteran and non-veteran patients at VA hospitals and clinics since 2001:



What do you think? Is the VA a victim of circumstance and overwhelmed by the numbers of patients enrolled in its health care system?