A powerful U.S. House of Representatives committee is sending a clear message to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs: Do what needs to be done to improve patient access to physical therapists in the VA health care system, including increasing pay, expanding the roles of PTs and PTAs in a range of settings including primary care, and allowing PTs to qualify for a special scholarship program.
The APTA-supported recommendation, from the House Appropriations Committee, comes by way of a report that accompanies a military spending bill for FY 2023. That report urges VA "to ensure that pain treatment alternatives to opioids, such as physical therapy, are available to veterans where they are most needed."
To increase that access, the committee is calling on VA "to examine how more competitive pay for physical therapists and physical therapist assistants can help hire and retain these professionals." Additionally, the lawmakers recommend that the department open up its Health Professional Scholarship Program to PTs, and explore ways to use PTs and PTAs in primary care, rural health, women's health, "and other areas of the department."
The appropriations package will be put before the House and Senate later this year, most likely in September, with a high likelihood of passing. APTA government affairs staff will continue to monitor the progress of the legislation and share developments. The association collaborated with APTA Federal, the association component focused on physical therapy in the federal government, in offering suggested language for the PT and PTA provisions.
"This is an important win for physical therapy," said APTA Congressional Affairs Specialist Brian Allen, who led APTA's advocacy efforts with committee members. "Not only does this recommendation help to strengthen the relationship between VA and physical therapy, it could result in some significant movement toward better PT and PTA recruitment and retention, and an expansion of their roles across VA and federal government."
APTA Federal President Andrea Crunkhorn, PT, DPT, believes the recommendations reflect some of the core policy priorities of the association.
"Helping students enter the profession with less debt, paying PTs and PTAs fair wages, encouraging access to physical therapy, and ensuring that as many patients as possible have access to pain management alternatives are major goals for the profession," Crunkhorn said. "APTA Federal stands by these initiatives as appropriate, timely, and essential for the future of federal physical therapy."
The committee recommendations are also consistent with the aims of a partnership established between APTA and VA in 2019. That partnership calls on APTA and VA to combine efforts around a range of topics including suicide prevention, promotion of nonpharmacological approaches to pain treatment, and greater PT and PTA participation in VA sports programs and events. Additionally, VA aims to leverage the partnership to "raise awareness of physical therapy and create new employment and practice opportunities."
"As the largest single employer of physical therapists, ensuring that VA can continue to recruit and retain physical therapists is of the utmost importance — both for the profession and the patients in need of drug-free pain relief," Allen said. "APTA welcomes the inclusion of this language in the appropriations bill, hopes for its speedy passage, and looks forward to continuing to work with Congress and VA to support our veterans and all Americans in need of physical therapist services."