When you’ve fought in a foreign war and your feet were mangled by a homemade land mine, the last thing you want to see at a Veterans Administration hospital is a foot doctor who’s grumpy about his pay.
For decades, the VA has paid podiatrists less than other kinds of medical doctors, a phenomenon that has baffled many in and out of the profession. Podiatrists must complete four years of postgraduate education and undergo training and residencies like most other doctors. With a lower pay scale, the VA struggles to recruit and keep foot doctors.
One of two members of Congress from Cincinnati wants to change that. Brad Wenstrup, who happens to be an actively licensed podiatrist, is co-sponsoring legislation to put podiatrists on equal footing with other doctors in the VA. Wenstrup served as an Army Reserve combat doctor in Iraq in 2005 and 2006. He says the VA needs to raise the standing of podiatrists, especially pay-wise.
“Of your veteran population, a lot of them develop a lack of feeling in their feet,” he says. “You can get that from diabetes, from alcohol and the effects of Agent Orange. There’s a great need within the VA for this type of care and there’s really no other group that treats it quite as well or as often.”
It will be a second go-around for Wenstrup’s resolution. The House passed it a year ago, but it didn’t rate sufficient priority to make it out of the Senate’s Veterans Affairs Committee. Wenstrup says a stronger effort will be made this Congressional session.
Wenstrup says he became interested in the measure as a member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, not as a member of the American Podiatric Medical Association or on behalf of the podiatrists’ lobby. As his resolution is titled, he says he just wants equity for podiatrists in the VA's eyes.
“What I hear from them out there is, you may get somebody out of residency who’s just getting started, but once they get board-certified, they tend to want to go out on their own because they’ve got loans to pay back and it’s more lucrative in the private sector, especially under this status in the VA,” Wenstrup says.
And just how underpaid are VA podiatrists? In November 2015, the Congressional Budget Office noted that the VA would ordinarily have hired 400 such doctors during the 2016-20 span at an average annual salary of $195,000. The resolution would bump them up to $210,000 and would allow the VA to recruit 420 podiatrists at that higher rate.
But frugality is a prevailing theme in the Republican-controlled Congress. The CBO estimates that the changes will cost $34 million over five years. Wenstrup, though, says that cost doesn’t account for the money the VA would save by reducing the number of patients referred to outside foot doctors.