By Jamie Johnson, WCI Contributor
The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) provides medical care to US veterans, and anyone who serves in the military and receives an honorable discharge is potentially eligible for VA care for the rest of their life. With more than 16.5 million veterans currently living in the US, the VA has an incredible number of patients. Unfortunately, a shortage of physicians has left many veterans facing long waiting lists to receive care at the VA.
According to the VA’s statistics, there were almost 65,000 vacancies at the end of the second quarter in 2022. This is bad news for veterans, but it represents an opportunity for physicians or medical students who want to work with veterans. If that sounds like something that interests you, a job at the VA might be right for you. Plus, there are financial and lifestyle advantages to working for the VA as opposed to working for a traditional hospital.
Here’s everything you need to know about becoming a VA physician.
The Biggest Benefits of Working for the VA as a Physician
Many doctors never even consider working for the VA, focusing instead on building a traditional career path in a hospital or private practice. But numerous benefits come with working at the VA.
Rewarding Work That Makes a Difference
You provide medical care to US military veterans when you work as a VA physician. Within a VA facility, doctors offer services ranging from physical therapy to cardiology to oncology. You’ll have the opportunity to apply your skills to improve veterans’ quality of life.
Government Perks and Benefits
Since the VA is a federal government agency, working there comes with many perks. VA employees receive generous paid time off, insurance packages, and a guaranteed salary.
VA salaries vary based on your specific field, years of experience, and the local cost of living. Across the US, VA physicians receive an average of $250,000 in base salary, not too much less than what the average doctor makes. VA physicians also receive a performance bonus of up to $15,000 annually.
Pay rates are subject to regular cost of living increases, with additional raises based on tenure. By law, no federal employee may draw a salary higher than the US president, which is currently $400,000.
That said, there are no significant restrictions on outside work. The VA does not require its physicians to sign non-compete clauses or contracts, even if they’re working full-time. In addition to that, VA physicians receive a very generous benefits package, including:
- A government pension: VA pensions are funded by a 4.4% payroll deduction from your base pay. In exchange, the VA provides an 8.3% matching contribution. Employees are vested in five years, and benefits are guaranteed for life upon retirement.
- Survivor benefits: After 10 years, the pension program also provides lifetime survivor benefits.
- Long-term disability coverage: After 18 months, VA employees receive long-term disability coverage, and their survivors become eligible for death benefits.
- Health insurance: As a VA physician, you’ll have access to the Federal Employees Health Benefits (FEHB) system. This system allows you to choose from a number of plans, including HMOs and fee-for-service plans. All plans cover spouses, domestic partners, children under the age of 26, and older children who remain dependents due to a disability. The VA pays 75% of your premium, and you pay the other 25% on a pre-tax basis—and you can take this benefit with you into retirement.
- Dental and vision insurance: Dental and vision insurance uses a similar system called the Federal Employees Dental and Vision Insurance Program (FEDVIP). It covers all family members, including children 22 and younger.
- Life insurance: VA employees receive discounted life insurance rates via Federal Employees Group Life Insurance (FEGLI). You can get a policy with no physical exam if you sign up in your first 60 days at the VA.
The VA also provides reimbursement and paid leave for continuing education courses. And for some specialists, the VA will provide up to $200,000 in student loan reimbursement ($40,000 per year x 5 years via the EDRP program.)
VA physicians hold a federal license to practice at all VA hospitals. If you want to transfer elsewhere in the country, you can. More than 1,250 VA medical centers are spread throughout all 50 states, U.S. territories, and the Philippines. If your spouse needs to move for their career or you just want a change of scenery, you can move wherever you need to. You’ll keep your pay, seniority, and benefits.
This is a considerable advantage when compared to traditional medical licensing. When you work at an ordinary hospital or private practice, your state license doesn’t allow you to practice outside the state—except for some limited restrictions like neighboring states or urgent medical emergencies. If you want to move, you have to go through the licensing process all over again.
Things to Consider Before Joining the VA
Like any type of work, being a VA employee has its downsides. For all the numerous benefits, the salary is still low to what you could earn in a private hospital. You’ll find more value in the private sector if you value salary more than benefits.
The other major downside is the bureaucracy. If you thought dealing with private insurance companies was complicated, you’ve never dealt with VA coverage and bureaucracy. Along the same lines, raises are often based on arbitrary bureaucratic rules, and merit may seem to take a back seat to seniority. But that’s par for the course in any government agency.
The Bottom Line
If you’ve never considered a job as a VA physician, now is a good time to think about it. With tens of thousands of vacancies, there are likely many open positions in your field. It’s not a perfect career—the base pay is below the market rate, and the bureaucratic machine can be frustrating.
But with generous benefits, including a pension, the financial rewards are real. So are the rewards of working with veterans. And with medical practices throughout the US, you can continue your career wherever life takes you.
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