VA History: VA’s Department of Medicine and Surgery established

Sixty-nine years ago, on January 3, 1946, Public Law 79-293 authorized the Department of Medicine and Surgery at the Veterans Administration. This law transformed the Federal veterans health care system in many unprecedented ways, but most notably: established a medical residency affiliation program, allowed VA to hire the best qualified physicians and medical staff outside of the civil service system, made medical research a top priority, and built new VA hospitals in urban areas near medical schools. Many new VA programs, including Voluntary Service and VA Canteen Service were established to support the new department’s efforts. Dr. Karl Menninger, a leading American psychologist, was just one of countless medical professionals attracted to work for the “new VA” at the time.

In January 1946, when the law was enacted, VA employed 2,300 doctors of whom 1,700 were still on active military duty from World War II. By the end of that same year, VA employed 4,000 full-time doctors with fewer than 400 on active duty. In November that year, VA hired its first women doctors to oversee care for women veterans. At the time, VA operated 109 hospitals in 45 states and the District of Columbia.

Prior to the creation of VA’s Department of Medicine and Surgery, VA hospitals and medical care operations were located under the Office of the Assistant Administrator for Medical and Domiciliary Care, Construction, and Supplies. Col. George E. Ijam, Assistant Administrator since 1930, had no medical background.

General Paul R. Hawley, M.D., Army’s chief medical director for the European theatre during World War II, was appointed as the first Chief Medical Director for VA’s new Department of Medicine and Surgery (DM&S). He quickly set out to get the residency and research programs underway and sought to establish a medical corps much like one of VA’s predecessors, the U.S. Public Health Service. Both General Hawley and VA Administrator General Omar F. Bradley led VA for roughly two years. Despite their short tenure, they made significant and transformative changes that greatly improved veteran’s health care and enabled VA to contribute to the study and advancement of medical science and prosthetics. Hawley later became director for the American College of Surgeons and died in 1965.

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On October 25, 1988, the Department of Medicine and Surgery was designated as the Veterans Health Services and Research Administration (VHS&RA) in Public Law 100-527—the same law that elevated the Veterans Administration to a Cabinet-level department and renamed it was the Department of Veterans Affairs. The law took full effect on March 15, 1989.

On May 7, 1991, VA’s Department of Medicine and Surgery was redesignated as the Veterans Health Administration (VHA).

from: Historian, Veterans Health Administration

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