Commentary

A Pathway to Full Practice Authority for Physician Assistants in the VA

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On December 13, 2016, the VA announced a change in its medical regulations to permit full practice authority for all VA advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) when they are acting within the scope of their VA employment.This amendment removed the stipulation requiring physician supervision or collaboration for APRNs. Many states across the U.S. have similar statutes for APRNs.

Not surprisingly, the regulatorychange was met with resistance fromof the physician establishment. “TheAmerican Medical Association (AMA) is disappointed by the Department of Veterans Affairs’ unprecedented proposal to allow advanced practice nurses within the VA to practice independently of a physician’s clinical oversight, regardless of individual state law,” Stephen R. Permut, MD, JD, AMA immediate past-chair wrote in a statement.

The American Academy of Physician Assistants (AAPA) then announced that it was “actively working with senior officials at the VA to institute a similar rule for PAs (physician assistants).” The well-intentioned AAPA statement seems misguided. It implies that PAs should be granted full practice authority because APRNs were granted the authority.

No matter the rational for granting APRNs full practice authority, the VA should not pursue similar regulations for PAs only because APRNs were granted the privilege. If the VA should institute a new amendment granting full practice authority to PAs, this action should be done independent of actions taken by any other nonphysician profession. Full practice authority for PAs should be based on training, clinical experience, and competency. Rather than adjusting the previously established threshold to obtain full practice authority to meet current PA standards, PAs should pursue further training and certification to earn this privilege. Physician assistant didactic and clinical training is based on the same model as training for medical doctors.

Physician assistant programs generally have 1 year of didactic training and 1 year of clinical training before trainees are eligible to take the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam. Many schools, such as my alma mater, George Washington University School of Medicine, have PA students in the same lecture hall training side by side with medical students.

Medical doctor training generally includes 2 years of didactic training, 2 years of clinical training in medical school, and 3 years of clinical training in residency (for internal medicine) before trainees are eligible to take the American Board of Internal Medicine (ABIM) exam. The didactic training in PA programs mirrors that of medical doctor programs. The real difference in education and preparation is the duration of clinical training; 1 year of clinical training for PAs vs 5 years of clinical training for MDs.

Therefore, my suggestion would be that leaders within the PA profession should work with the ABIM to create a pathway in which PAs who work in the VA could take the ABIM exam after 4 years of clinical experience. If a PA employed by the VA passes the ABIM exam, they would be granted full practice authority within their scope of practice at the VA. This requirement would validate that these PAs warrant this privilege and subsequently satisfy physician concerns by showing that they have passed the same exam required of physicians. Moreover, this additional level of preparation and testing would increase the competency of PAs and the quality of care they provide to the veterans they serve.

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