An overhaul of the Department of Veterans Affairs passed by Congress last summer will deliver $22 million to hospitals in the Puget Sound region over the next two years to help the network catch up with its rapidly expanding patient population.
The money will allow VA Puget Sound to hire the equivalent of an additional 124 medical employees, according to a breakdown it released on Wednesday.
The funds come from the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act, which Congress adopted last summer in the wake of revelations that VA schedulers in Phoenix doctored reports to conceal long delays patients faced receiving care. The bill set aside $5 billion for the VA to hire employees while freeing up money for veterans to receive care from private doctors.
“VA has been struggling with access to care for far too long, so today’s announcement that VA Puget Sound will hire additional full-time employees to care for our veterans is great news,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., former chairwoman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.
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VA Puget Sound is a network of two large hospitals in Seattle and Lakewood, as well as several smaller community clinics throughout the region. It has about 4,000 employees caring for about 97,000 patients.
Its patient population has nearly doubled since 2000 as veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan entered the system while older generations of veterans used more care to address the complications of aging.
The local VA has been hiring constantly over the past few years, and it has reported recent success in filling critical nurse and doctor vacancies.
But the system has struggled to keep pace with turnover while adding positions to meet greater demand. Last year, for instance, VA Puget Sound made 304 hires but saw 325 employees retire or resign.
VA Puget Sound plans to use the Choice Act money to add new positions in mental health, surgery, rehabilitation care, specialty medicine and geriatric care. It also plans to add the equivalent of 41.5 full-time employees to practice general medicine.
Congress passed the Choice Act in part to shorten the time veterans have to wait for medical appointments.
In June, new patients seeking care at VA Puget Sound had to wait an average of 59 days to see a primary care doctor. In November, the wait for new patients had shortened to 35 days in Seattle and 34 at the VA’s American Lake hospital in Lakewood.
“This is a great step in the right direction, but there is still much more work to do,” said Murray, whose father served in World War II.
VA Puget Sound is not the only hospital network to benefit from additional money. Last week, for example, VA Portland announced it will receive $34 million to hire 202 more employees through the Choice Act.
That hospital is a little smaller than VA Puget Sound but has recorded longer patient wait times. In June, new patients waited an average of 80 days to get primary care appointments in Portland.