Durbin Legislation Designed to Attract Medical Professionals to Rural VA Hospitals Approved by Senate

[WASHINGTON, D.C.] – Assistant Senate Majority Leader Dick Durbin (D-IL) today announced that his legislation to help the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) recruit and retain high-quality healthcare administrators and providers in rural areas was approved by the United States Senate late last night. Durbin’s legislation was added as an amendment to the Fiscal Year 2010 Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriations bill which will now go to a Conference Committee.


“Last week, I visited the Marion VA hospital which is staffed by many, many individuals who deeply care about their jobs, their patients, their hospital and their community,” said Durbin. “Many are former service members themselves, or come from military families. The care and well-being of our nation’s veterans is of paramount importance to them. However, the staff vacancy rate at Marion – over fifteen percent – makes it difficult for the hospital to provide a full range of medical services; the same can be said for our VA hospitals in rural areas across the country. Today’s legislation will give the VA another tool to use as it works to improve its rural health facilities.”


Durbin’s legislation would establish a pilot project within the VA that would focus on efforts to recruit qualified medical care professionals – doctors and nurses – and medical administrators to work for VA hospitals in underserved rural areas. The pilot project would provide $1.5 million for the Secretary of the VA to offer incentives to medical care professionals and $1.5 million to attract medical administrators. The legislation requires a thorough report on the structure of the pilot program, number of people that were recruited and potential for retention.


Durbin introduced the legislation after holding meetings with the Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, Eric Shinseki, the VA’s Inspector General, George Opfer and members of the Illinois Congressional Delegation regarding the recent finding that quality management failures remain at the Marion VA facility. On November 12, Durbin met with Marion VA Medical Center employees, representatives from local veteran service organizations, VA officials from Washington and the new interim leadership of the Marion VA.


In a recent report by the VA Inspector General, Marion VA Medical Center was found to be at or near the bottom in quality management of the roughly fifty VA hospitals that were reviewed in fiscal year 2009. The Inspector General reviewed the period between October 2007 and August 2009 under the Combined Assessment Program, which includes recurring evaluations of health care facilities focusing on patient care and quality management. Many quality management failures that were found during previous reviews were identified in this most recent review including lack of sufficient oversight and fragmented and inconsistent reporting structure, inadequate peer review, failure to meet mortality screening requirements, and failure to integrate the patient safety program into all areas of the medical center. Additionally, the Inspector General identified new problems in records review, patient data analysis, staff life support certifications, compliance with environmental standards, and medication management.


In some cases, the Inspector General found that medical personnel at the Marion facility performed procedures for which they did not have proper privileges and safety guidelines involving patient health were routinely ignored.


Poor leadership and communication led to serious problems at the Marion VA Medical Center in 2007, including surgical malfeasance associated with the deaths of nine veterans. The VA reassigned five individuals, including the Marion facility’s director, chief of staff, and chief of surgery, to non-clinical areas after concerns about the quality of patient care at the facility arose. Various reviewers from the Veterans Health Administration, Office of Health Inspection, and Office of Inspector General, have identified concerns with quality management and deficiencies in medical center leadership. Many of these reviews have focused on oversight of quality management processes and, compliance with policies designed to ensure patient safety.