(CHAPEL HILL) -- The state’s largest health insurer is joining forces with the military to use the skills of those trained in medical fields in uniform here at home. Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina (BCBSNC), and the UNC School of Medicine (UNC) are collaborating to create a physician assistant (PA) masters degree program designed for returning military veterans with input from the United States Army Special Operations Command team at Fort Bragg.
The program will build on the medical experience and training that Special Forces Medical Sergeants receive during their service and provide opportunities for veterans who want to transfer their unique and hard-earned skills into the health care system. This collaborative effort will improve health care access for North Carolinians by reducing the shortage of health care professionals in our state.
BCBSNC has pledged $1.2 million over the next four years to help UNC establish the masters curriculum and hire full-time program staff. A significant portion of the grant will provide scholarship funds through the Medical Foundation of North Carolina to assist Special Forces Medical Sergeants who have transitioned out of the military.
Collaborating on creative approaches like this program will help us tackle the challenges our health care system is facing, said Brad Wilson, BCBSNC president and CEO. Its a simple equation: we need more physician assistants in North Carolina, and our veterans want the jobs. When these medics return home, they’ll have the opportunity to take their experience in the field and use it to advance their careers and continue to care for patients.
The United States and North Carolina are facing a deepening shortage of doctors and primary care physicians. Some figures estimate that by 2020, there will be a national shortage of about 150,000 physicians and 65,000 primary care physicians . And in North Carolina, almost 1 million people live in areas that do not have enough health care professionals to effectively serve their communities. UNC will create a two-year curriculum with training rotations at UNC Hospitals and free clinics around the state. The programs training will focus on primary care to meet the needs of underserved communities in North Carolina.
We know that the majority of our Special Forces Medical Sergeants want to continue their careers in medicine to help improve the health and lives of our citizens, but many are unsure of what path to take when they transition out of the military, said United States Army Special Operations Command Surgeon Colonel Peter J. Benson. This program gives our veterans the education and opportunity to lend their unique health care and leadership skills to benefit citizens across North Carolina.
Research has indicated there will be high interest and participation in the program. A 2010 national survey of Special Forces Medical Sergeants revealed that nine out of ten respondents wanted to pursue a career in health care outside of a military setting, and about half were interested in becoming PAs .
This collaboration is evidence of our shared commitment to veterans, providing access to primary care and improving the health of all North Carolinians, said Dr. William L. Roper, MD, MPH, UNC School of Medicine dean and UNC Health Care CEO. Physician assistants play a vital role in the primary care setting, and our medically trained soldiers return to us well-equipped to meet the needs of underserved communities. North Carolina, in particular, provides many opportunities for our veterans who want to pursue a long-term career in medicine.
Since 2009, the UNC School of Medicine and the Joint Special Operations Medical Training Center (JSOMTC) at Fort Bragg have collaborated to enhance medical training, care and innovation in underserved areas of North Carolina. Their existing collaboration will influence the development of the new masters degree program with an executive advisory board seeking input from JSOMTC.
"I'm extremely proud that the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is part of this initiative, said Chancellor Holden Thorp, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It's one more example of how our campus has worked with the United States Armed Forces since World War I to train our soldiers and to help the people of North Carolina."
The UNC Masters of Physician Assistant Studies degree program is in the early planning stages and plans to enroll its first class of student veterans in 201