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Bill Would Enlist Physician Assistants To Treat Vets In Understaffed Hospitals

Kathy Swendiman

A bill penned by Indiana Senator Joe Donnelly would seek to address doctor shortages in military hospitals by training physician assistants to administer psychiatric treatment to servicemembers.

The bill is attached to the 800-page National Defense Authorization Act, an annual piece of legislation that outlines military funding and expenditures. The Senate Armed Services Committee approved the NDAA last week.

“What we’re trying to do is in effect guarantee that there’s more than enough there for everyone who wants to talk to somebody,” the democrat says.

Director of Purdue University’s Military Family Research Institute Shelly MacDermid Wadsworth says military hospitals have had problems with understaffing -- a problem that has been attributed to bureaucratic snags and an increasing number of patients seeking treatment.

“Both DOD and VA have struggled to fill all of their physicians and keep them filled at all times,” she says. “These are difficult jobs, particularly in the VA, they face challenges that make it harder to keep people.”

MacDermid Wadsworth says military hospitals have not only had problems filling healthcare positions, but also treating the rising number of patients who need psychological help:

We have seen substantial increases in recent years in a variety of mental health diagnoses related to traumatic experiences during combat,” she says, noting a need for treatment in families of servicemembers as well.

Donnelly’s bill establishes a small pilot program that would create a fellowship designed to train physician assistants to specialize in psychiatric treatment for members of the military. Those PAs would then be funneled into Department of Defense facilities.

Physician assistants work in tandem with doctors and are able to treat and prescribe medicine to patients. Medical facilities are increasingly reliant on such clinical practitioners as doctor shortages across multiple fields become a growing issue, both in and outside of military facilities.

The White House has threatened to veto the 2017 version of the defense spending bill to protest its use of special war funds for day-to-day military operations. 

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