BURLINGTON, Vt. ― The new secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs made an impassioned recruitment pitch to medical school and nursing students at the University of Vermont on Monday, urging them to consider careers in the VA.
It was the latest in a series of recruiting stops VA Secretary Robert McDonald has made since he took over at the end of July with a mission to overhaul an agency beleaguered by long waits for health care for the nation’s veterans and by workers falsifying records to cover up delays.
Besides filling immediate needs of reducing wait times for people seeking treatment at VA facilities across the country, he said he sees the long-term way to improve the system and keep it vibrant as bringing in more staff.
“There is no higher calling,” McDonald said to a conference room full of students at the College of Medicine, referencing the opportunity to care for the nation’s veterans and, in some cases, their dependents.
But he also touted the practical benefits. A new law allows the VA to pay up to $120,000 in debt forgiveness for medical professionals. Last year, the average UVM medical graduate had $175,000 in debt.
After leaving Burlington, McDonald drove south to the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, in Lebanon, New Hampshire, where he made a similar pitch to students.
In the last few weeks he’s made stops in California and North Carolina. In the coming days he’s going to the Boston area and then Maryland.
McDonald was accompanied during his visit to Burlington by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent who chairs the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs and has been a longtime advocate for veterans.
Sanders helped shepherd through Congress a bill that provides $5 billion so the VA can recruit more medical professionals.
McDonald told the students in Burlington that the VA has about 150 medical centers across the country and 820 community-based outpatient clinics. He said the VA, which also is increasing its use of mobile health vans that can reach veterans in rural areas, is trying to recruit between 20,000 and 30,000 doctors and nurses.
“What you will find is that at the VA, we are at the forefront, we pioneer a lot of new things in medicine,” McDonald said.
The VA medical system has produced three Nobel Prize winners, and it has helped pioneer a number of cutting-edge treatments.
Second-year UVM medical student Katherine Wang, of Lexington, Massachusetts, said she hadn’t given much thought to her after-graduation plans but McDonald’s pitch was giving her something to think about.
“They are definitely looking for young doctors, and they want you to come,” Wang said. “I could go for loan forgiveness. … It’s just good to know the options are out there.”