Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald spoke at Duke Medical School Friday morning as part of a new recruitment initiative to attract more qualified medical professionals to the VA.
McDonald—who was appointed in July, following the resignation of former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, Graduate School '77—noted that many VA hospitals continue to be severely understaffed. Although a number of VA hospitals have expanded clinic hours and brought in more medical professionals in response to this year's controversy surrounding allegations that VA hospitals covered up treatment delays, McDonald emphasized that these changes are unsustainable.
VA is currently seeking candidates for approximately 15,000 positions in its hospitals. Duke Medical School is the first stop in the department’s new recruitment efforts.
“I am here for one reason and one reason alone—I want you to come work for the VA,” McDonald told the crowd of more than 300 Duke medical school students.
The Veterans Access to Care Act passed earlier this month increased the VA Education Debt Reduction Program’s cap on loan reimbursements for medical students from $60,000 to $120,000—doubling incentives. The bill also requires VA to add at least 1,500 new graduate medical education residency slots over five years at VA facilities that are experiencing shortages.
McDonald addressed the VA controversy earlier this year, attributing the problem to a lack of transparency on part of VA senior officials, whom he said had not been completely truthful about the department’s funding shortages.
He noted that the situation was “not new.” An Inspector General report in 2003 had revealed problems in the VA system but was largely disregarded by VA executives, McDonald said.
The VA is working on a shift toward preventative care, he added.
McDonald also said that VA would be moving to a leasing strategy to address space limitations in current facilities, as opposed to building new clinics.
The Durham VA Hospital was among the clinics investigated for inappropriate wait times this spring, and two employees were put on administrative leave for violating policy. An analysis by the News and Observer found that Durham's wait times in 2014 were more than double than the national VA's stated goal, though they have been steadily improving since 2012—when wait times were more than four times the goal.
After the first half hour of McDonald's speech, the floor opened to questions from the audience. Several medical students in the audience inquired about research opportunities in VA facilities. Without responding with specifics, McDonald assured them that there would be funding to do research.
“If we need more, I’ll go back to members of Congress and get more,” McDonald said. “Come get your feet wet, and then it’s my responsibility to convince you to stay.”
McDonald sat on the Board of Visitors for the Fuqua School of Business from 2005-2012, serving as chair of the board in 2011-12.