Arnold Schwarzenegger shouldn’t receive better care than our veterans

When Arnold Schwarzenegger was governor, he decided that you and I don’t need to have physicians in charge of our anesthesia care, and he signed a letter exempting California from that federal requirement. Luckily most California hospitals didn’t agree, and they ignored his decision.

When he needed open-heart surgery to replace a failing heart valve, though, Governor Schwarzenegger saw things differently. He chose Steven Haddy, MD, the chief of cardiovascular anesthesiology at Keck Medicine of USC, to administer his anesthesia.

Now some people in the federal government have decided that veterans in VA hospitals all across the U.S. should not have the same right the governor had: To choose to have a physician in charge of their anesthesia care.

That’s right. The VA Office of Nursing Services has proposed a new policy to expand the role of advanced practice nurses, including nurse anesthetists, in the VA system. This new policy in the Nursing Handbook would make it mandatory for these nurses to practice independently. Physician anesthesiologists wouldn’t be needed at all, according to this proposal, even in the most complicated cases — such as open-heart surgery.

If this misguided policy goes into effect, the standard of care in VA hospitals will be very different from the standard of care other patients can expect. In all 100 of the top hospitals ranked by US News & World Report, physician anesthesiologists lead anesthesia care, most often in a team model with residents and/or nurses.

The new policy isn’t a done deal yet. The proposal is open for comment in the Federal Register until July 25. Already thousands of veterans, their families, and many other concerned citizens have visited the website www.safeVAcare.org and submitted strongly worded comments in opposition. I urge you to join them.

Physician-led care teams have an outstanding record of safety, and they have served veterans proudly in VA hospitals for many years. Many university medical centers have affiliations with their local VA hospitals, where their faculty physicians deliver clinical care and conduct research. UCLA, for example, sends anesthesiologists to the VA hospital in Los Angeles, so that our veterans get the same high-quality care as wealthy patients from the enclaves of Brentwood.

Many of our veterans aren’t in good health. They suffer from a host of service-related injuries, and they have high rates of chronic medical disease. Some have been among the most challenging patients I’ve ever anesthetized. Their care required all the knowledge I was able to gain in four years of medical school, four years of residency training in anesthesiology, and countless hours of continuing medical education.

No VA shortage of anesthesia care

It’s clear, of course, why the VA is proposing the change in the Nursing Handbook. The reason is the scandal over long waiting times for primary care. Proponents argue that giving nurses independent practice will expand access to care for veterans.

But there’s no shortage of physician anesthesiologists or nurse anesthetists within the VA system. The shortages exist in primary care. A solution that might help solve the primary care problem shouldn’t be extended to the complex, high-tech, operating room setting, where a bad decision may mean the difference between life and death.

The VA’s own internal assessment has identified shortages in 12 medical specialties, but anesthesiology isn’t one of them. The VA’s own quality research questioned whether a nurse-only model of care would really be safe for complex surgeries, but this question was ignored. The proposed rule in the Federal Register lists as a contact “Dr. Penny Kaye Jensen”, who in fact is not a physician but an advanced practice nurse who chooses not to list her nursing degrees after her name. The lack of transparency in the proposal process is disturbing.

In 46 states and the District of Columbia, state law requires physician supervision, collaboration, direction, consultation, agreement, accountability, or direction of anesthesia care. The proposed change to the VA Nursing Handbook would apply nationally and would override all those state laws, which were put in place to protect patients.

In Congress, many senators and representatives on both sides of the aisle recognize the need to continue physician-led anesthesia care for veterans. Representatives Julia Brownley of California’s 26th District and Dan Benishek, MD, of Michigan’s 1st District, are strong advocates for veterans’ health. They have co-authored a letter (signed by many in Congress) to VA Secretary Robert McDonald, urging him not to allow the destruction of the physician-led care team model as it currently exists within the VA system.

Governor Schwarzenegger’s heart surgery is a matter of public record. He has spoken about it openly on television, and he graciously invited the whole operating room team to his next movie premiere. I was lucky enough to go to the premiere too, because his anesthesiologist, Dr. Haddy, happens to be my husband.

But I didn’t set out to write this column on behalf of my husband. I’m writing on behalf of my father, who is now 93, landed on the beach at Normandy on D-Day, and miraculously survived the rest of the war as a sniper. And I’m writing on behalf of all the men and women who have served our country, and who deserve the best possible anesthesia care from physicians and nurses who want to work together to take care of them. If we don’t defeat the proposed change in the VA Nursing Handbook, they all lose.

A version of this column ran in the newspapers of the Southern California News Group on July 2.

Karen S. Sibert is an anesthesiologist who blogs at A Penned Point.  

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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