The head of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, visiting Baltimore on Tuesday, asked nursing students at Johns Hopkins to consider careers with the VA — part of a larger plan to combat the long wait times that have plagued the health care system.
VA Secretary Robert A. McDonald, who took over the troubled Cabinet department in late July, has embarked on a national recruiting tour in the hope of luring future doctors, dentists and nurses to the VA by touting job satisfaction, a sense of mission and the institution's contributions to modern medicine.
He's also planning to boost salaries to make the VA's pay scale more competitive with that of the private sector. Doctors in the private sector generally earn as much as or more than they can working for the VA.
"We're taking the steps we need to take to get veterans off of wait lists, into clinics — and in the longer term, we're working to provide timely access to care, and we need to build our capability by having more medical providers," McDonald told reporters at the Baltimore VA Medical Center.
"We need the best doctors and the best nurses, the best and brightest that we can get."
The VA is trying to improve its performance and its image following reports this year that 40 veterans died while waiting to be seen at a VA facility in Phoenix, and allegations that some staff falsified reports to disguise the length of the delays.
McDonald said 13 more primary care physicians are being added to the staff of about 40 in the VA Maryland Health Care System.
The system is now offering Saturday appointments for primary care, accommodating as many as 30 new patients each weekend, he said, and every full-time physician on staff is seeing three additional patients a week.
And a new, $485,000 contract with Evergreen Health Care will allow new patients to receive a primary care appointment in less than a week, McDonald said.
Veterans in the Maryland system faced the fourth-longest wait in the nation to schedule a first-time visit with a primary care doctor, auditors reported in June. Veterans in Maryland were waiting an average of 80 days to make an initial appointment, the Nationwide Access Audit found.
When factoring in patients making a second or subsequent visit and those seeing specialists, most appointments in Maryland were scheduled within 30 days.
The VA operates the largest health care system in the country, serving nearly 9 million veterans a year. In Maryland, the VA sees 55,000 patients a year.
McDonald said he wants students at the country's medical, nursing and dental schools to know about the contributions VA doctors and nurses have made to modern medicine. The VA's medical staff, which includes three Nobel Prize winners, conducts cutting-edge research into spinal cord injuries and post traumatic stress disorder.
He also noted that the VA medical center in Baltimore was the first hospital in the world to have an all-digital radiology department, back in 1993.
McDonald said the VA performed the first successful liver transplant, implanted the first pacemaker and invented the nicotine patch. And it was one of the VA's nurses who designed the use of bar code software to administer medicine and treatment for patients.
"These are reasons that people should want to work at the VA," McDonald said.
McDonald has crisscrossed the country to share that message, with stops in the last week at the University of California, Davis and the University of Vermont.
Meeting Tuesday with a few dozen students at the Hopkins nursing school, he said the VA needs to create more opportunities for nurses.
"We've got to do a better job," he said. He said the VA's "errant" nursing program demanded "systemic change."
McDonald, formerly CEO of Procter & Gamble, recounted the history of the VA, dating to its beginnings after the Civil War.
He described incentives for joining the VA, including flexibility in choosing working locations and the recent doubling of a debt forgiveness program for medical professionals to up to $120,000.
In a question-and-answer session, McDonald heard complaints about the extensive data entry required by the VA, a request to use nurses as experts for consulting in addition to clinical work and other suggestions.
McDonald also said he would look into forming a partnership between the VA and the nursing school to hire more Hopkins graduates.
The VA announced a plan to increase the maximum pay for incoming physicians and dentists by up to $35,000 per year.
McDonald said Tuesday the VA also is looking at making the pay and compensation for nurses more competitive.
He also said the VA adds other perks outside of pay.
"A lot of the top medical professionals want to be able to continue their clinical work, they want to continue their research and they want to be able to teach at the same time," he said. "It's hard in a for-profit network to do that. You have to be in an integrated network, like ours."
He said he was looking to the VA's existing relationships with institutions such as Hopkins and the University of Maryland's School of Medicine to build the pipeline to grow the health system's staff.
Dennis H. Smith, director of the VA Maryland Health Care System, said hundreds of students at Hopkins and Maryland's medical school already are working part-time for the VA in Baltimore.
The VA also has increased the number of residencies for doctors, expanded a pilot program that allows former combat medics to work as clinicians and is reaching out to the military to recruit veterans who are medically trained professionals to come work for the VA when their service is up.
McDonald plans to continue his tour later this week with a visit to Boston, home of the Harvard, Boston University and Tufts medical schools. He said he also will make stops at the country's historically black institutions, including Howard University in Washington, to build on diversity among the VA staff.
"We have one of the most inspiring missions in the world, which is to care for veterans," McDonald said.
Baltimore Sun reporter Colin Campbell contributed to this article.