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Federal pay prevents Oklahoma City VA from filling some doctor positions

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A federal report released last month found the Oklahoma City VA Medical Center had a high number of vacancies and many of them may never be filled. [Photo by Jim Beckel, The Oklahoman]

A federal report released last month found the Oklahoma City VA Medical Center had a high number of vacancies and many of them may never be filled. [Photo by Jim Beckel, The Oklahoman]

There are 21 job openings at the Oklahoma City VA Medical Center and many of them may never be filled.

A federal report released last month found the hospital had a high number of vacancies. Wade Vlosich, its director, says that's largely due to the way he calculates shortages but concedes some positions are nearly impossible to fill.

“Our recruiting problem is mainly with physicians because of the salary cap. That's the big issue, getting people to come here more for the mission than they are for the money,” he said.

Under federal employment laws, no federal employee can have a higher salary than the president of the United States, who earns $400,000 per year. That poses challenges for VA hospitals seeking specialists.

Take, for example, cardiothoracic surgeons. The Oklahoma City VA hospital needs four but recently lost one, so they're recruiting to fill the slot. The problem is that cardiothoracic surgeons can earn far more than $400,000 at private hospitals.

During an interview, Vlosich scanned his list of staff shortages and pinpointed those that will almost certainly not be rectified.

“Mohs surgeon?” he read aloud, referring to a skin cancer specialist. “There's no way. They make $800,000. So, I can't recruit those.”

One workaround is federal contracts, which can exceed the $400,000 limit. For ophthalmologists, the VA contracts with the Dean McGee Eye Institute at a cost of $600,000. That includes overhead expenses it wouldn't have to pay if it could hire its own ophthalmologists.

“It's one of those things in federal government where if they changed up the rules, it would make everything a lot more easy,” Vlosich said. “Because I'm paying $600,000 for the same person but if I could pay them $500,000, then I would have somebody, easy.”

In smaller Oklahoma cities, where the VA operates clinics, the challenge is finding primary care doctors, though not because of the pay. Fewer young professionals are interested in moving to rural areas, posing challenges for private practices, as well as the VA.

Engineer shortage, too

At the Oklahoma City hospital, which has struggled for years with the fallout from shoddy construction work, it's a challenge to hire engineers. Two construction projects at the hospital are $10.8 million over budget and years behind schedule due to engineering mismanagement, a federal report found in March.

“A lot of engineers, because of all the issues we had, don't want to come work here,” Vlosich said.

The news is not all bad, however. Vlosich says the hospital will be hiring 55 new employees in July and has added 78 employees since last year. He says all areas are covered, even if the hospital will never be fully staffed with specialist surgeons.

“It is just the way it goes at a VA hospital, because we'll never reach that salary level for those doctors. So, no, it doesn't worry me,” Vlosich said. “Areas that worry me are filling inpatient hospital positions, primary care positions and then some of the hard-to-recruit nursing positions, and engineers. Those are really the ones that keep me up at night.”

As for those $10.8 million over-budget construction projects, the Senate passed a VA appropriations bill last week that includes funding for them.

Justin Wingerter

Justin Wingerter is the federal government reporter for The Oklahoman, covering the state’s congressional delegation, Oklahomans in Washington and the effect of the federal government on Oklahoma.... Read more ›

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