The troubled Veterans Affairs Department said Wednesday that it will boost the maximum salaries for incoming physicians and dentists as part of VA Secretary Robert McDonald’s push to hire an estimated 28,000 health-care providers to handle the backlog of veterans who need care. Not to mention a flood of former troops from Iraq and Afghanistan and the aging Vietnam War veterans that are filling the waiting rooms.

It’s a shortage of VA health-care providers that was at the heart of a recent scandal over the cover-up of long patient wait times, experts say.

The updated pay tables propose an increase of $20,000 to $35,000 in annual pay for incoming physicians and dentists who would be providing care for veterans.

Due to a three-year federal pay freeze, the annual pay ranges for VA physicians and dentists have not increased since October 2009.

These new salary ranges will be made effective Nov. 30, following the 60-day Federal Register notification period.


Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald testifies on Capitol Hill on Sept. 9. (Lauren Victoria Burke/AP)

This is one of the first tangible actions by McDonald, who took over the top post this summer, in addressing the issue. While touring VA facilities across the country, he also stopped at Duke University’s School of Medicine, where he told medical students that “We need you.”

He promised that the VA could “pay off more of your student loans,” an increase range that was included in the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act, which was passed by Congress after the wait-list controversy.

McDonald told the students, “We need over 1,000 medical professionals in Phoenix alone,” referring to the epicenter of the VA waiting time crisis. “In Las Vegas (we) need 500 … I went to Memphis, we need 300 in Memphis.”

He also said there was a particular need for mental-health-care professionals.

“We simply don’t have enough mental health professionals in the VA or in this country to take care of them,” he said.

“I am worried about our ability to recruit and retain talent,” McDonald said last week, at his first news conference at the department’s office in Washington. “The issue now is, we have to find the people.”

The department said the pay increase was just one aspect of his recruiting initiative that would include collaborating on a new nursing school academic partnership that would focus on training nurses in psychiatric and mental health care among other things.

The department told Congress in July that there were almost 46,000 vacancies across the entire VA health-care system, a vacancy rate of 15.5 percent. Congress in turn provided about $17 billion in funding for reforming the department, including $5 billion for staffing.

Doctors groups say that while the effort is a step in the right direction, they say the VA has a tough job because of the higher salaries and prestige of the private sector.

Marilyn Park, the legislative representative on VA issues for American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), called Wednesday’s announcement “definitely good news and we have been saying this was a problem for a long time.”

The doctors groups say physicians in the private sector earn anywhere from 20 percent to over two times more than those who work for the VA, depending on the doctor’s specialty. They said they were concerned about retention of current doctors who would now be working alongside new recruits, earning at least $20,000 more than them.

“We need to do more for those who are already working hard everyday, otherwise it will be horrible for retention,” Park said.

The VA said the new incoming pay table was a first step, and that it would also be looking at salaries across the board. The VA is the nation’s largest employer of health-care providers.

“It was a VA nurse that designed the use of bar-code software for administering medications to our patients,” McDonald said,adding that its a system that includes Noble winners and has a long list of medical achievements from developing the implantable cardiac pacemaker and conducting the first successful liver transplants to creating the nicotine patch to help smokers quit and crafting artificial limbs that move naturally when stimulated by electrical impulses from the brain.

“Working for the VA is a noble and inspiring mission — to serve Veterans, their survivors and dependents,” he said. “There is no higher calling, it is the highest calling.”