Helping Veteran’s Health: Send in the Nurse Practitioners

Helping Veteran’s Health: Send in the Nurse Practitioners
AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File
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Honoring the service and sacrifice of our military is a commitment that continues long after America’s heroes are discharged from active duty.  Sadly, our country has not lived up to the promise of ensuring our nation’s veterans access to timely, high-quality health care through the U.S Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) health care system.   

Today, more than 505,000 veterans are wait-listed 30 days or longer to receive care at VA facilities across the country, while nearly 300,000 are waiting 31 to 60 days for care.  This cannot continue.  We need to provide better access to health care for veterans and we need to reduce wait times.

The VA, the nation’s largest health care network with 139 hospitals across the country, currently suffers from a shortage of nearly 41,000 medical professionals, including physicians, nurses and assistants.  In addition, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that outpatient medical appointments have risen by 20 percent, or 17.1 million visits on an annual basis since 2011.  Meanwhile, according to a 2015 study conducted on behalf of the Association of American Medical Colleges, primary care physician shortages are expected to persist through at least 2025. Conversely, the nurse practitioner profession is experiencing double-digit growth, according to an annual survey recently released by the American Association of Nurse Practitioners.

In an effort to reduce delays and provide our veterans with access to proven, top-quality primary care, the VA has proposed a solid plan granting veterans direct access to nurse practitioners (NPs) and other advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) in VA facilities.  The proposal, supported by the VA and its top physician, Under Secretary for Health David J. Shulkin, veterans, caregivers, and concerned citizens alike, would modernize the VA system and allow the VA’s 4,800 nurse practitioners to practice to the full scope of their education and training--providing clinical assessments, ordering and interpreting diagnostic tests, making diagnoses, and initiating and managing treatment plans, including prescribing medications.  Nurse practitioners perform more than 800 million patient visits annually, including care for the general population as well as active duty military and veterans.  

Currently, 21 states and the District of Columbia have already authorized NPs to work autonomously and well-respected organizations, including the National Academy of Medicine (formerly the Institute of Medicine), AARP, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and others recommend providing private sector patients direct access to APRNs.  Nurse practitioners, with their advanced degrees, national certifications, and 50-year track record of service, which includes treating our nation’s military and veterans, are ready to meet the health care needs of our nation’s heroes.

The VA’s proposal, supported by 88 percent of U.S. adults and 91 percent of Americans with a veteran in their immediate family, according to a national survey by Veterans Deserve Care, recognizes the results of decades of research confirming the outstanding patient outcomes that NPs deliver.  

Following the July 25th deadline, the VA will complete its review of the more than 162,000 public comments it received during the 60-day comment period on the proposed rule and determine its next steps.  

It is time for our country and the VA to move beyond the status quo and protect veterans’ health by making care directly and readily accessible by providing them with direct access to nurse practitioners at VA facilities across the nation.  Organizations from the Air Force Sergeants Association to the Military Officers Association of America support this rule - and we urge the VA to swiftly enact this measure that will increase the quality of care and reduce unnecessary delays.  Veterans served on the front lines; not a single one should have to wait in line for health care.   

CMSgt Robert L. Frank, USAF (ret.), is chief executive officer of the Air Force Sergeants Association and a supporter of Veterans Deserve Care, an organization raising awareness of the need to strengthen health care for our nation’s veterans.



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