Veteran Assistance: Strengthening our Health Care Workforce on the Homefront

As baby boomers age, focus on expanding health care access and finding less expensive ways to accomplish that expansion increases, and one of the areas that people tend to focus on is nurses. The frequent question that arises is “will we have enough nurses?” Over the past few years, there has been much speculation about a nursing shortage. Will there be enough lower-cost trained nurse professionals to provide health care when and where we need it? And when we ask ourselves that question, we might think of who else was there for us, when and where we need them, such as the  many Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans who worked in various health care professions during their deployments, but who are now coming home unable to enter the workforce in their areas of trained expertise because they are lacking proper training and certification.

For the past few years, seeking ways to help Veterans with their training to enter the workforce is gaining momentum as an issue,but also as a distinctly plausible solution for our shortage of health care providers. Last fall, the Administrator of the Health Resources and Services Administration, (HRSA) Mary Wakefield began a discussion of what is being done to remedy this situation and plans for the future. She noted that Veterans have found that their training in medic and certain other health care roles do not fully meet the standards of academic training for nursing programs, therefore many Veterans have encountered difficulty gaining academic credit for their health care training while enlisted. And why are we shutting this door in the face of people who are ready, willing and able to help?

Finding ways to address the nursing shortage is critical. In March of this year, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that job growth in the healthcare sector was outpacing the growth realized in 2011, accounting for one out of every 5 new jobs created this year.  Hospitals, long-term care facilities, and other ambulatory care settings added 49,000 new jobs in February 2012, up from 43,300 new jobs created in January. As the largest segment of the healthcare workforce, registered nurses will most likely be recruited to fill many new positions. The BLS confirmed that 296,900 jobs were added to the healthcare sector in 2011. The BLS also predicts that the number of employed nurses will grow from 2.74 million in 2010 to 3.45 million in 2020, an increase of 712,000 or 26%.

How will we fill this need? As many are realizing, and many who have already met that realization, we have Veterans who are ready, willing and able to help us, but this time, as civilian employees in our health care workforce. Now, how can we make this work?

First, the government is providing Federal grants to educational institutions such as Texas A&M, which will provide financial assistance to allow its nursing school to work alongside key military leadership and training staff at the Medical Education and Training Command in San Antonio, Texas with the goal of identifying strategies to align enlisted health care training and nursing academic credit. Next, funding priority is being given to nursing schools that offer pro-Veteran learning environments, to recruit and support Veterans interested in pursuing nursing careers, and facilitate academic credit for enlisted health care training. Grant programs are administered by the Department of Health and Human Services’ HRSA and these funds provide support to registered nurse and advanced degree nursing programs, giving priority to Veterans. According to Mary Wakefield, “These important steps will not only build health care career opportunities for veterans, but also help to expand the health workforce to meet the needs of the growing and aging population.”

It’s not just nursing programs that are receiving attention from the Federal government, but physician assistant programs are as well. HRSA is also working to identify and help replicate model programs that offer expedited curricula, enhanced recruitment, retention, and mentoring services for veterans and will provide technical assistance to the nation’s 164 accredited physician assistant education programs, with plans to increase the number of HRSA grantees with veteran activities beginning in fiscal year 2012.