Veterans' Benefits
A 2013 photo of a veteran. Reuters

They may not have gone to medical school but some nurses at the Department of Veterans Affairs may be taking over some duties traditionally handled by doctors.

The proposed policy, disclosed this week in the Federal Register, comes following controversial statements from administrators about lengthy wait times. And of course the VA, no stranger to controversy, has also been criticized for the proposed plan.

Doctors groups were quick to show their disdain for plans to allow specialized nurses to take on more extensive tasks such as administering anesthetics. By their reckoning, handing over the reins to nurses amounts to lowering care standards for veterans to deal with long waits.

“The nation’s top healthcare systems rely on physician-led teams to achieve improved care and patient health while reducing costs,” Dr. Stephen R. Permut, a board member of the American Medical Association, told the Washington Post in a statement. “We expect the same for our country’s veterans. All patients deserve access to physician expertise, whether for primary care, chronic health management, anesthesia or pain medicine.”

Other doctors associations, including the American Society of Anesthesiologists, criticized the plan, too, saying allowing nurses take over in surgery theaters lowers standards and risks veteran lives.

Supporters note nurses regularly administer anesthetics in active duty combat. Others say the healthy active duty population is much different from veterans who may not be quite as healthy.

The controversy came just days after a separate slipup by the department. A report noted the VA had been incorrectly labeling thousands of veterans waiting for care as deceased, cutting them off from receiving care and assistance.

“Although these types of cases represent a small number of beneficiaries in comparison to the millions of transactions completed each year in our administration of benefits, we sincerely regret the inconvenience caused by such errors and work to restore benefits as quickly as possible after any such error is brought to our attention,” a VA spokesperson told the Wall Street Journal in a statement.

Correction: This story originally misidentified Dr. Stephen R. Permut's position within the American Medical Association. He is a board member.