ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
There's a shortage of primary care professionals in this country. Yet, military veterans with a lot of health care experience are having trouble finding jobs. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is launching a physician assistant program aimed at veterans and other nontraditional students. UNC staff worked with Army officials at Fort Bragg to figure out how to translate troops medical experience into civilian jobs. From member station WFAE, Michael Tomsic reports.
MICHAEL TOMSIC, BYLINE: Dave Manning provided medical support during two combat deployments in Iraq and he's also been the sole medical provider on a Navy ship with more than 100 people. And yet, after 20 years of service...
DAVE MANNING: Nothing I've done really translates over beyond basic EMT. So trying to find something in the medical field without any credentials, without any licensor, is tough. There's nothing out there.
TOMSIC: Manning's story has become more common as the U.S. winds down wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Veterans nationwide have been pushing for their credentials to translate better to civilian jobs, and President Obama has highlighted the frustrations medics face specifically. It's a waste of highly trained talent, says Dr. Paul Chelminski, director of UNC's new physician assistant program.
PAUL CHELMINSKI: The medics and the corpsmen are often very skilled in acute medical care of younger people. They're extremely skilled in trauma care if they've been deployed.
TOMSIC: But Chelminksi says there are some gaps in their ability to diagnose and manage chronic illness, which is a large part of civilian health care. UNC will fill in those gaps. Insurance company BlueCross BlueShield of North Carolina is donating $1.2 million to help launch it and provide scholarships. BlueCross CEO Brad Wilson says the program will also help with a growing need in North Carolina as more people get insurance through the Affordable Care Act.
BRAD WILSON: The customers who are accessing the health care system through the ACA are using more services than any other groups. Many are in need of primary care, and the physician's assistant plays a key role in delivering high-quality, high-value health care.
TOMSIC: The first class has 20 students, nine of whom are veterans. It's open to students of all backgrounds. UNC research shows many troops with medical training are more interested in becoming a physician assistant than a doctor. Physician assistants work under the supervision of doctors but still diagnose and treat patients. Dave Manning, who's in the program's first class, explains why that's right for him.
MANNING: As I was coming out of the military in my early 40s, I didn't want to spend a decade training and being in school. I just wanted to get in and get out and physician assistant is perfect for that.
TOMSIC: The program will take two years. Its director, Chelminski, says the first class comes in with an extraordinary amount of clinical experience compared to the national average. It'll also be a few years older, with an average age of 33. For NPR News, I'm Michael Tomsic.
SHAPIRO: And this story is part of a reporting partnership with NPR, WFAE and Kaiser Health News.
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