Out of Uniform and Into Scrubs

David W. Callaway

With the recent passage of the SERVE Act, veterans and military medics could soon provide the antidote to America’s escalating healthcare crisis.

Every year, the U.S. government invests millions of dollars to train military medics to serve overseas. Yet too often, when these men and women return to the U.S. and transition out of service, the U.S. government and civilian healthcare institutions fail to recognize—and put to work—their hard-won knowledge and skills. Americans are paying the price of this failure.

Largely, this is due to antiquated credentialing and licensing requirements that have not adapted to serve the modern workforce. The result is that even as U.S. healthcare faces an escalating worker shortage, it is turning away massive numbers of potentially qualified public servants. People who could step in immediately to help stabilize our health system. People who could also become the foundation for future healthcare delivery.

The recent passage of the Supporting Education Recognition for Veterans during Emergencies Act, or SERVE Act, may soon help veterans deliver a very needed shot in the arm to the American healthcare system. 

About the SERVE Act

At its core, the SERVE Act aims to facilitate the medical credentialing and hiring of veterans with healthcare skills and experience gained in the military. With more than 1,290 medically skilled veterans among its volunteer ranks, Team Rubicon was among the organizations advocating for passage of the SERVE Act at its introduction back in March of 2020. 

Technically, the SERVE Act will enable veterans to provide the Department of Veterans Affairs with the history of their medical experience and trained competencies via a mandated update of the VAs web portal. It also requires that the VA, the Department of Defense, and the Department of Labor establish a program to share the veteran’s provided information with critical entities such as state credentialing bodies. The goal is to facilitate the hiring and utilization of medically experienced veterans in the case of a national emergency, including a public health emergency such as the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The SERVE act also requires the VA to implement a program to train and certify veterans who served as basic health care technicians—including medics and corpsmen—during their service, allowing veterans and transitioning service members to work as VA intermediate care technicians, or ICTs, specifically at VA medical center locations with staffing shortages. 

An Escalating Healthcare Crisis—and a Possible Antidote 

For years, the United States has faced a burgeoning healthcare worker shortage. But, fueled by the COVID-19 pandemic, the smoldering healthcare worker shortage in the United States is now threatening to burn down the house of medicine. The problem is so real that within the next five years, the U.S. will face a shortage of more than 3.2 million entry-level essential healthcare workers—including medical assistants, home health aides, and nursing assistants. Nearly 50% of nurses are over 50 years old, and a recent report indicated that 29% of RNs say they are likely to leave their current role in direct patient care. The U.S. needs to hire at least 200,000 nurses per year just to match increased demand. 

Across the U.S., urban emergency departments are running on fumes. The situation is even worse in our rural communities where critical access hospitals that often experience high poverty rates are grossly underserved. According to the U.S. Health Resources & Services Administration, more than 15 million Americans live in medically underserved areas. It is time to empower our veterans with medical skills to continue serving their communities on the homefront.

More Veterans in Medicine Means More Cultural Competency in Medicine and More Access to Quality Care for All

With its requirement that the VA implement a program to train and certify veterans who served in medical fields to work as intermediate care technicians, or ICTs, the SERVE Act will help transitioning enlisted medical personnel continue to work and develop professionally while still working within the government. But, it goes far beyond benefiting VA medical center locations with staffing shortages; it could help to reshape a medical care system by increasing the pool of skilled workers available to healthcare organizations. 

Veterans will also bring a wealth of experience and a range of perspectives to the healthcare industry, thanks partly to their diverse backgrounds: In 2020, 31% of active duty members identified as a racial minority, according to the Department of Defense. Such knowledge and experience can help improve the cultural competency of the healthcare industry, making it more accessible and responsive to the needs of diverse communities.

By credentialing Army medics who honed skills on the battlefield, Air Force paramedics who helped rescue injured personnel in combat, or Navy corpsmen who dispensed vaccines and aided in emergency surgeries on battleships, the U.S. can dramatically increase the number of skilled workers available to relieve pressure on a struggling healthcare system. Expanding the SERVE Act into the civilian sector can improve the American health system’s resilience to pandemics, strengthen the healthcare labor market, give veterans high-value post-military jobs, and provide communities with the health providers they deserve, all while helping ensure the long-term stability and success of the healthcare industry and improving the quality of care provided to patients now and in the face of future emergencies. 

Freeing Up More Veterans to Get More Lifesaving Done

The passage of the SERVE Act is just step one: Next, the VA must begin to identify veterans with military medical experience and implement a program to train and certify veterans as ICTs. And the VA, the DOD, and the Department of Labor must establish a route of communication between their organizations and credentialing bodies to help veterans transition their medical skills and expertise to the civilian workplace—and to volunteer organizations that could also benefit from their skills. Do that, and more veterans will be free to get more lifesaving done, whether that’s caring for the sick and wounded in an inner city emergency room, an ambulance in remote northern Michigan, or after an earthquake in a distant land.

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