GAO: Indian Health Service continues to struggle filling provider vacancies

Patients in a hospital waiting room
The GAO says the IHS is having trouble matching local market salaries and does not have enough housing to meet demand as they try to recruit medical talent. (Getty/SuwanPhoto)

Hospitals serving American Indian reservations continue have too few doctors and nurses to provide quality and timely healthcare to the patients who rely on them, according to a new report released (PDF) by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). 

According to the GAO report, the Indian Health Service (IHS) has a 25% vacancy rate among the providers that many American Indian and Alaska Native patients rely on.

And while the GAO said the IHS uses a number of strategies to recruit and retain providers, such as offering providers financial incentives and housing, the agency is having trouble matching local market salaries and does not have enough housing to meet the demand.

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Therefore, the IHS ends up hiring temporary providers—a move that is expensive and results in less continuity of care, they said.

IHS facilities have been the subject of previous federal reports flagging difficulties recruiting and keeping quality staff members, upgrading technology and offering needed resources.

RELATED: Indian Health Service vows reforms at troubled tribal hospitals

It was noted that IHS hospitals, despite treating a growing number of patients, are unable to provide needed care for particularly complex patient conditions, and there is also limited access to specialists. IHS facilities also frequently rely on "acting" staff members, as leadership cannot recruit and retain staff.

The GAO said the IHS should obtain information on temporary provider contractors, including their cost and the number of necessary full-time equivalents, to use the information to better fill the gaps. The IHS concurred with GAO's recommendation. 

This latest GAO report came out the same day the Department of Health and Human Services' Office of the Inspector General released a report raising concerns about healthcare provided at the Passamaquoddy Tribe's Pleasant Point Medical Center in Maine.