WASHINGTON — Congress and military leaders will discuss creating a multiservice medical corps to help deal with recruiting and retention shortfalls among military health professionals, members of a Senate committee said this week.

The concept drew praise from nursing and physician experts from the services, who called it an extension of the many current missions that are already joint operations.

Senate Appropriations Defense subcommittee chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, said those discussions likely won’t take place until this fall, because of the tight time schedule Congress faces leading up to the November elections. But he asked the panel of medical experts on Wednesday to begin looking at the idea.

“It may be time for a defense medical corps, with some type of training that would specialize for the Marines and Army or whatever it might be,” he told the panel. “It appears the integration of the medical services could have substantial benefit and could raise the mental awareness of the corps.”

In fiscal 2005, the Army filled only 77 percent of the slots in its Health Professions Scholarship Program, the major pipeline for the service’s medical corps. The Navy did worse, at 56 percent.

Service officials said that won’t mean any short-term doctor shortages, but it could mean major problems in the number of physicians available in fiscal 2009, when those students are set to finish their studies and take their place in the force.

Meanwhile, the Air Force drew in more than 115 percent of its scholarship target for fiscal 2005, but saw shortfalls in both its physician recruiting and retention programs.

Nursing officials from the services testifying Wednesday also echoed those problems. Navy and Army nursing officials reported their combined active duty nursing corps is nearly 500 people short, and nationwide the industry is not producing enough new nurses to keep up with demand. The Air Force reports being about 516 nurses short at present.

Major Gen. Gale Pollock, chief of the Army Nurse Corps, said those shortfalls and the continued rotations through combat zones can easily lead to “compassion fatigue,” stress-related issues for the caregivers due to the intensity of the wounds and work they see.

“Every day they have to deal with injured soldiers,” she said. “We’re hearing from them, ‘We’re willing to go, but a full year is wearing us down.’”

Meanwhile, Air Force Major Gen. Melissa Rank, assistant surgeon general for nursing services, said only about 11 percent of her entire nursing force has deployed to support combat operations, even though many more of them have asked to go. A joint medical force might provide extra missions for those nurses.

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