Federal Employees News Digest
VA hospital employees demand agency to fill thousands of vacancies
- By Nathan Abse
- Sep 18, 2017
Veterans Affairs hospital employees staged protests at multiple facilities nationwide in recent weeks, demanding that the department expedite filling some 49,000 vacancies to ensure veterans receive the care they need.
“Working people at the VA are struggling to do their jobs while staffing shortages are at near dangerous levels," American Federation of Government Employees President J. David Cox Sr., said, adding, "And Congress is busy self-congratulating themselves for making it easier to fire civil servants at the VA – one-third of whom are veterans themselves. Veterans around the country are being forced to wait longer for care.”
At one such protest took place at the Denver VA Medical Center. At this facility, there are about 600 vacant positions, leaving massive holes among needed clinical staff—ranging from doctors and nurses to administrative and support positions.
The situation has left employees overworked and veterans suffering through extended wait times to get treatment, according to the union.
“Our employees are becoming very frustrated … I've had some that just say 'I'm done,' and leave because of the overwhelming workload,” Bernard Humbles, president of AFGE Local 2241, said. “We need to fill these positions.”
Even when hiring is completed, there remains a tremendous turnover problem at many VA facilities—according to the union and veterans organizations consulted by FEND.
For example, although the Denver VA hospital acquired 800 new employees in 2016, approximately 600 of those quickly separated from service, in part because of the pressures created by understaffing and low pay as compared to private hospitals and other employers.
The protests, which have been going on for several weeks, have provided political lift to two bills being introduced in Congress, aimed at fully staffing the agency—S. 1723 introduced by Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) and H.R. 3459 introduced by Rep. Anthony Brown (D- Md.). AFGE has urged Congress to pass both bills.
Vet group analyzes vacancy problem
The problem runs deeper than huge numbers of vacancies—it’s about the issues behind those vacancies. Those include the years of battering in the media that the agency has suffered—some times and places, fairly, and others, perhaps unfairly. In any case, the latest wave of tough coverage began in 2014 with expose stories of long waits for care at the Phoenix VA facility—and actual loss of life and cover-up efforts that occurred there.
But, these days, emerging worst problems include the extremely long timeline from application to hiring time—something that discourages many prospective VA nurses and doctors. And the fact that until recently, there was no way agency recruiters could pay competitively.
One prominent veterans’ group official—Rick Weidman, executive of government affairs for the Vietnam Veterans of America, laid out these and other problems for FEND readers.
“There are a combination of things that have hurt the VA over time,” Weidman told FEND.
“For example, during the crisis that followed the Phoenix news, we had an undersecretary who was responsible, but just didn’t take responsibility—and he did a bad job,” Weidman said. “That didn’t help.”
“But there is also the wider problem of long hiring times, of not being able to pay competitively, and of just a shortage of medical professionals—of doctors and nurses—available to even try to hire,” Weidman told FEND. “So, the vacancy rate is very high.”
“We have been talking about these issues for at least for three years,” he continued. “Particularly in the mental health area,” he added.
“The secretary finally has authority to increase pay rates to market level,” Weidman said. “The agency can finally make rates competitive in an urban area—it can pay enough to work for the VA.”
“But that authority, that’s just happened,” Weidman continued. “And it won’t really take effect until the next fiscal year, at the beginning of October. We’ll see how that goes.”
Weidman noted that overall, the government has paid for recent major wars on its “government credit card,” as he put it. But when he or other veterans advocates confront Congress on underfunding for veterans, “they will tell you ‘we have to pay cash for that,’ and ‘we just don’t have the money,’” he continued. “They should put it on the same ‘credit card’—the same borrowing account they did the wars—if they believed the wars were necessary so is caring for our veterans.”
“Let me get this straight,” Weidman said. “You guys want us to pay cash for the guys who have been torn up in war—even though you put those wars, basically, on a credit card?”
“There just has been no effort to distribute the pain of these costs—at all,” Weidman told FEND. “So, now we have a huge deficit—sure—and we are supposed to cut everything, according to many in Congress. But, really? Where were some of these guys, when they [voted for these wars] and the bill was being run up?”
Vacancies: Key “remaining problem”
The vacancies, to Weidman, are clearly the key problem. As the VA has come to greater grips with weeding out bad apples and improving its attention to individual facilities, the “biggest problem that remains is the numbers”—the holes in staffing.
Weidman offered some examples. “Some of the newer physicians that were hired over the last five or six years, at many facilities, were promised work as part of a full team,” he said. “Well, they get there and sometimes there is no team.”
“That’s a problem even here in the DC area, in the local VA system—and we brought that to the VA’s attention,” he said. “We said that psychiatry folks here get less than half of the people they are authorized. That means there are way too many clinical needs and way too few people.”
“It reminds me of what happened to the Army—at the old Walter Reed Hospital, some years ago,” Weidman said, mentioning the firestorm that followed media attention on that issue. “As the casualties mounted in Iraq and Afghanistan, the leadership at the time continued to downsize the Army Medical Corps and the Air Force and Navy equivalents. And we, at VVA, asked them, ‘Hey, what the hell did you expect would happen?’”
In addition to problems in staffing in particular urban or rural areas, Weidman returns to a more national issue.
“The clear message here now is that there are just not enough physicians in this country,” he said. “That’s in part because so many have retired early—and that’s because of various factors, including the cost of malpractice insurance.”
“And we don’t have enough young doctors,” he continued. “That’s number two, it’s the average age of doctors. Like me, as people are getting older and they consider retiring.”
“It’s also about where they are located—there are not enough doctors, especially in the rural areas,” Weidman continued. “But then we have another problem in urban areas—not enough doctors, but where they are VA hasn’t been able to spend the money to attract them.”
"We at VVA are well aware of the high vacancy rate—and we have been consistent in pushing that we have to get something done about it,” Weidman said. “We have known, as you do, that bad news travels fast—and the coverage of the crisis at the VA didn’t help [with the image] of the agency.”
“’If it bleeds. it leads,’ as they say about news—and that’s especially so in local news—and it’s still true today,” Weidman said. “Whenever I speak publicly, I always say about our problems at the VA, yes, there are some are pretty bad problems—including some who need to be assisted in contributing in the world by working elsewhere. Yes, that needs to be dealt with.”
“And you can’t be going around firing people, at the VA, willy-nilly,” Weidman said. “You need to make sure that with each individual, there are real reasons.”
“In any case, often we have seen that you’re going to have a hard time getting agency to where you need it to go, in part because of bad publicity,” he concluded.
“Now—in part because of these bad stories, at some VA facilities, over time—some people think these issues are ubiquitous,” Weidman said. “Some people, in fact, want to eliminate the VA—and just get the private sector in there. Often, these critics go over the top, and don’t want to talk about the way that every day, tens of thousands of veterans get very good to excellent care at the VA.”
“I say that, not to diminish the problems—which we are the first the point out, very often,” Weidman said.
“This problem ebbs and flows, over time, vacancies and other problems,” Gerald Kykisz, an active member the veterans group, America’s Veterans—and a Vietnam veteran who lives in Illinois. “The bottom line is the VA in some instances is great, and in others it isn’t—but they are improving in my experience.”
Kykisz works with the therapeutic uses of art for veterans—which he, and the medical literature, shows can be helpful and healing to those who were tasked to fight this country’s wars.
“The VA here is good because it is staffed by good people, it is run by the Navy and a training base nearby—and they run the hospital as required—they are generally on time and the improvement has been 100 percent,” he said. “Now I could take you to another VA hospital I’ve been to, and I’d rather die than be hospitalized there.”