Doctor shortage forces Colorado VA hospital to postpone surgeries

Veterans affairs sign
Eastern Colorado Health Care System is trying to lure doctors with high salaries, as much as $400,000 a year for anesthesiologists and $173,000 a year for anesthetists. (JeffOnWire/CC BY 2.0)

A nationwide physician shortage has hit a Colorado VA hospital particularly hard, forcing it to reschedule or postpone dozens of surgeries because it doesn’t have enough anesthesiologists and certified registered nurse anesthetists.

Approximately 65 to 90 nonemergency surgeries at the Eastern Colorado Health Care System have been pushed off because of the shortage, caused in recent months because staff have left for other jobs or are on paternity and maternity leave, a hospital spokeswoman told The Denver Post. In July, the publication reported that the VA hospital had one of the worst wait times for care in the nation.

RELATED:  Physician shortage could hit 100K by 2030

Competition for doctors, especially anesthesiologist, is fierce in Colorado. As a result, the hospital has bumped salary offers to as high as $400,000 a year for anesthesiologists and $173,000 a year for anesthetists, Fox-31 News in Denver reports. In the meantime, the system is contracting with locum tenens to fill the staffing gaps until they hire permanent staff.  

In a statement to the news station, U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., said that it is a concern when medical procedures are rescheduled or postponed, but he’s been told that the VA hospital is meeting the needs of urgent and critical care patients.

RELATED: Another VA scandal revealed: USA Today uncovers years of hidden medical mistakes, staff misconduct

A recent report from the Association of American Medical Colleges estimated that by 2030, the country will be short at least 40,800 physicians and the supply of surgical specialists will remain level while demand increases. The AAMC said that the shortage will mean there are not enough doctors to meet the needs of a growing and aging population. Officials at the Officials of VA’s Eastern Colorado Health Care System told The Denver Post this summer that it’s been difficult to keep up with the demand for care due to an increase in the veteran population.

VA hospitals across the country have struggled with providing timely care to veterans, resorting in some cases to using secret lists to cover up the fact that some patients waited months for appointments. This week a USA Today investigation revealed another scandal involving hundreds of cases where the agency covered up serious employee mistakes and withheld information from patients about medical errors.

To help ensure that veterans have timely access to care, in 2014 lawmakers approved the Veterans Choice Program to allow veterans to receive treatment from a private physician if the closest VA facility is too far away from where they live. In August the Senate approved $2.1 billion in emergency funding to continue the program, but the VA indicated last month that the additional funds may run out in December.