Madigan Army Medical Center’s Winder Clinic on Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., in March 2020.

Madigan Army Medical Center’s Winder Clinic on Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., in March 2020. (John Wayne Liston/Madigan Army Medical Center)

Legislation to speed up the hiring of nurses at military health care facilities has been introduced in Congress as a first step to fix a system serving 9.6 million service members and other beneficiaries.

“Staffing shortages are a challenge for health care facilities across the country, and we must keep working to find ways to retain qualified and experienced nurses in military health care facilities,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

The bill, introduced by Murray on Dec. 4, is co-sponsored by Sen. Ted Budd, R-N.C., and Rep. Marilyn Strickland, D-Wash.

Murray and Strickland cited a report earlier this year that singled out Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., as the military installation most in need of qualified nurses.

The report by the Government Accountability Office, called “Key Insights: Health Care Staffing,” looked at major federal agencies, including 70 military installations, and found 85% reported a shortage of nurses. The Defense Health Agency reported 80% of all civilian vacancies it listed were direct health care positions.

Madigan Army Medical Center at Lewis-McChord reported the highest vacancy rate of any installation, with 38% of civilian positions vacant. It would require 1,516 replacements to reach authorized staff levels.

A Nov. 29 “management advisory” to the Defense Health Agency issued by the Defense Department inspector general found staffing shortages were frequently a factor in delayed or denied service to beneficiaries. The advisory included problems at military facilities and with authorized civilian medical contractors.

The proposed bill would remove hiring requirements that Defense Department officials have said push experienced nurses to leave military facilities for better pay and conditions in private sector jobs.

The Retain Educated Workers and Registered Nurses Developing Experience Act would allow officials at military facilities to waive certain experience requirements to promote skilled nurses already working for the Defense Department.

Under current rules, nurses who receive additional licenses sometimes are forced into lower-paying positions than if they were employed in the private sector.

Murray said some nurses can make as much as $30,000 more by moving to civilian hospitals in areas in need of available nurses.

Military medical centers must compete for civilian nurses at a time when the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports more than 250,000 additional nursing positions will be required by 2030.

The lawmakers sponsoring the bill represent areas with several large military installations.

Murray’s state includes Lewis-McChord, Naval Station Kitsap and Fairchild Air Force Base. Strickland, a former mayor of Tacoma, Wash., represents areas around Lewis-McChord.

Budd represents North Carolina, home to several major bases including the Marine Corps base at Camp Lejeune, the Army’s Fort Liberty, formerly Fort Bragg, and Seymour Johnson Air Force Base.

“This bipartisan proposal provides a common-sense fix that would cut through bureaucratic requirements to help the military keep dedicated health care professionals on the job without taking a pay cut,” Budd said.

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Gary Warner covers the Pacific Northwest for Stars and Stripes. He’s reported from East Germany, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Britain, France and across the U.S. He has a master’s degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York.

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