WASHINGTON—A three-year pilot program to provide undergraduate students a clinical observation experience within VA is called for in a bill recently passed by the House of Representatives.

The purpose of the pilot program, which would be required to be established in at least five regionally diverse VAMCs, would be to “increase the awareness, knowledge and empathy of future medical professionals toward medical conditions common to veterans; increase the diversity of the recruitment pool of future VA physicians; provide a diverse clinical observation experience commensurate with the standard expectations for medical school applications; and expand clinical observation opportunities for all students by encouraging students of all backgrounds to consider a career in medicine.”

The bill is part of congressional efforts to improve hiring and retention within the healthcare system.

The House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs said that “improving the recruitment and retention of younger employees is critical to VA’s continued success. However, VA has historically performed poorly in comparison to other federal agencies in hiring younger employees.”

Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-OH), who sponsored the bill, HR 2787, also explained that clinical observation hours often are required for health professional schools, but there is no formal process to apply for these hours.

“Opportunities to shadow are limited and are based on where you go to school or who you know,” Kaptur pointed out. “Students who attend schools outside major cities, as well as those whose families lack connections to the medical community, find it harder and harder to shadow and are thus disadvantaged in medical school admissions.”

Lawmakers have expressed concern and held hearings about VA’s ability to fill vacancies and retain personnel.

Earlier this year, the VA Office of Inspector General released a report on its facility-specific survey that found that 138 of 140 facilities listed shortages of medical officers, with psychiatry and primary care positions being the most frequently reported. Of the 140 facilities, 108 listed shortages in nurses with practical nurse and staff nurse as the most frequently reported.

VA officials told lawmakers at a hearing this summer that those findings were consistent with prior annual reviews of VHA staffing needs, with physicians and nurses topping the list. Overall, VA’s vacancy and turnover rates fluctuate between nine and 10%, VA officials said at that hearing.

Human Resources Specialists

In addition to the House’s passage of HR 2787, lawmakers passed a bill to ensure that human resources specialists are qualified to do their jobs recruiting medical professionals. The bill would require VA to establish qualification standards and performance metrics for VHA HR positions and provide a report to Congress on that.

The House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs said it “has become increasingly concerned that VHA Human Resource professionals do not have the necessary qualifications to adequately fulfill their obligations.”

“This concern has been compounded by several Committee investigations which found VHA HR professionals with substandard educational and professional backgrounds including one HR Director at a VA medical center who lacked both a college degree and relevant work experience,” the committee explained.

Peter Shelby, VA assistant secretary for the Office of Human Resources and Administration, told lawmakers over the summer that the complexity of VA’s three personnel systems makes it difficult to fill human resources vacancies, which are key to hiring.

Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, suggested at the hearing that “there is plenty of evidence to suggest that HR specialists are leaving VHA due to their dissatisfaction with understaffing and complexity of work. The result is administrative delays that further lengthen the time needed to recruit, hire and onboard badly needed talent.”