Washington, D.C. – Former U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) secretary Kathleen Sebelius urged physician assistants to step up to the challenge of increasing support for wounded military members, veterans and their families, during the keynote address at the IMPACT 2013 general session today.

Since 2001, the United States has deployed 2.5 million troops to Afghanistan or Iraq. Rates of traditional wartime injuries, such as amputations have been low due to advances in combat and medicine. But more troops than ever are coming home with traumatic injuries, including post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, depression and substance abuse issues.

Although no rigorous studies have evaluated the true burden of these injuries, crude estimates put the total military caregiver population – including wives, husbands and children — providing support for these wounded warriors at around 1.1 million individuals.

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In order to meet the challenges this population poses to the healthcare system, Dole announced a new initiative – Caring For Military Families: The Elizabeth Dole Foundations – and called on physician assistants to join her in being “change agents for those who’ve protected our freedom and their caregivers.”

The organization’s mission is to raise national awareness of military caregivers and develop the resources necessary to provide effective, evidence-based services “at this very critical time,” Dole explained.

“As providers practicing in every medical setting and every specialty, you are on the front lines of supporting these wounded warriors and their families,” Dole said. “No one else is as uniquely suited to support them, because you are compassionate, you take time with patients and families, your generalist training in medicine allows you to see the whole patient, and the caregivers who support them.”

Clinicians can find out more about becoming involved with the organization at DoleMilitaryFamilies.org or at The Elizabeth Dole Foundation on Facebook.

Improving access to healthcare

Echoing Dole’s sentiments, HHS Secretary Sebelius pointed out the unique intertwined history of the PA profession and U.S. military, noting the first graduating class of PAs from Duke University in 1967 was comprised entirely of navy corpsman.

“Over the last 46 years, your profession has grown from a new idea to an indispensable part of the U.S. healthcare system,” Sebelius said.

Since taking office in 2009, she has shown her commitment to the profession by passing a number of reforms to reduce regulatory burdens for PAs in rural practice, announced $2.3 million in PA-related grants, and supported funding for PA scholarships and loan repayment programs. Sebelius also recently asked the AAPA for a list of federal barriers to PA practice and is working with HHS to address these issues.

In addition to these initiatives, Sebelius told the audience about a working group she’s created to help veterans overcome the obstacles they face as they transition from military back to civilian life. Veteran recruitment, retention and training to promote the hiring of veterans in advanced medical positions, including as PA programs, is a priority, she noted.

“This strengthens the healthcare workforce as a whole, and PAs in particular,” Sebelius said. “We need the PA workforce to be as strong as it can be because as quickly as it is growing in numbers, it is growing in importance.”

As healthcare transitions into more efficient and effective team-based models, PAs are becoming increasingly central to the patient experience. Effective October 1, 2014, new state health insurance exchanges will open giving Americans “a better way to shop for health insurance and compare health coverage options,” and U.S. health insurance companies will no longer be able to deny people coverage based on preexisting conditions.

“For the first time ever there will actually be a market that companies will have to compete for customers. Instead of competing to sign up the healthiest people, insurers will have to compete side by side to provide the best coverage at the lowest prices,” Sebelius said.

However, challenges still remain. Although insurance is now accessible to everyone, it does not necessarily mean everyone will sign up. As PAs have considerable experience serving uninsured communities, they are in a unique position to encourage the patients who need it the most to enroll in health insurance programs.

“Let them know having health insurance can make a big difference,” Sebelius said. “You’re used to doing an important job every day. Now you have an additional opportunity to strengthen your communities by providing vital information. The more people we can reach out to and get signed up, the healthier and more prosperous our country will be.”