Veterans push VA to fill job vacancies, amid clamor and protest

The Department of Veterans Affairs is a 330,000-plus employee, $175 billion organization. The VA’s largest unit, the Veterans’ Health Administration, runs a far-flung system of over 1,200 veterans’ health facilities serving millions of patients. VA healthcare is generally rated very highly. But three years ago, long waits for care and neglect were discovered at the VA’s Phoenix healthcare facility—and subsequently elsewhere—resulting in congressional hearings, tough media coverage and the departure of some from the agency. The VA has said these problems are being addressed. Still, tens of thousands of job vacancies hamper the agency’s functioning. Critics blame the vacancies—mostly in VHA healthcare jobs—on a nationwide shortage of qualified candidates, agency pay limitations, and bad press resulting from misconduct probes. The American Federation of Government Employees—whose members have held substantial protests at various sites in recent months—faults Congress and the VA over the vacancy issue—alleging leaders have facilitated the shunting of too many patients to private health providers. The VA, in turn, insists the vacancy problem is improving. In related news, this year, a controversial new law could assist in the removal of bad apples at the VA—and facilitate hiring. There is also a  new whistleblower office. Nathan Abse explored these issues in an interview with Joe Chenelly, executive director of the 250,000-strong group AMVETS, also known as American Veterans.

Q & A with Joe Chenelly

Some vets who use VA health facilities complain the tens of thousands of healthcare vacancies have led to overworked staff and gaps in care—with AFGE putting vacancies at 49,000, the VA significantly less. Can you comment?

Chenelly: Certainly. The fact is that the agency lacks staff in many places. So, we are working with the VA’s central office and at the local level—along with employee unions—to get these jobs filled. There are many reasons for the vacancies. A big one is there are not enough mental and other health care providers. Then there are the VA’s recruiting—and retention—problems.

With legislation passed this year, the VA appears to have new, faster firing capabilities—and mildly improved hiring capabilities. Could these help lift the vacancy crisis—especially in places like Denver, with its 600 unfilled VA healthcare job vacancies?

Chenelly: Yes, we think so—some. Some of that could be helpful. But it will take a while to take effect. Another problem is the issue here is not just in the hiring process—which is slow, or in dismissing people. It’s that VA pay is still too uncompetitive. Another big issue is the perception the American public still has of the agency and its employees. So, we are working to let VA folks know we appreciate them and their dedication to veterans—and we are spreading the word.

As you noted, a countrywide shortage of medical practitioners is one cause of vacancies, right?

Chenelly: That’s absolutely the case. One thing we are doing to fix this is to press for ways to help veterans that want to pursue medical professions. In fact, already a huge percentage of our doctors in this country educated to work and care for vets have gone through the VA at some point in their training. The VA needs to be able to capture more people motivated to do this, to help them with their medical education—and in recruiting and hiring them.

The many-months-long process of hiring people into healthcare at the VA, that’s another cause for vacant VA healthcare positions, correct?

Chenelly: The slow process of hiring people is not just a big problem at the VA and in healthcare areas of the VA. It’s a problem for just about any agency in the federal government. Job applications get caught up in red tape. The process is notoriously very slow. There have been various proposals to streamline things. I understand the VA needs to be careful, to make sure they hire the right kind of people—and especially to prevent hiring people who might harm patients. But the hiring process, as things stand, takes so long that it’s ridiculous. It’s a major reason why so many medical people—doctors and nurses—don’t even try to get into the VA. In fact the entire H.R. side of the government is broken. We can all see it, especially these past eight months, throughout Washington. Because of slow hiring and the vacancy situation, those already in federal jobs are often overburdened.

So, we have noted a shortage of health professionals, long hiring times and the red tape behind it as issues hurting recruiting? Any others--maybe the VA scandal starting in Phoenix in 2014?

Chenelly: Yes, Phoenix. That was about real problems. There was a lack of trust between the local office and the national office, at the Veterans Health Administration—it was a huge part of what happened. Then there was the bad publicity that followed. You have to remember, the VA has the largest coordinated healthcare system in the country, and one of the largest in the world. Every time a local VA hospital problem got some media, it became a national news story. Unfortunately, as things developed, it didn’t take long for VA employees to be painted as villains—like people who didn’t care about veterans, and were sometimes killing veterans.

Given those problems, what are some solutions to the large number of vacancies?

Chenelly: We need Congress to look at compensation at the VA, to make the VA more competitive with the private sector—especially for nurses. In addition to compensation as a solution, we are also looking into telehealth solutions. Hopefully, that can help to get more health providers into the VA system. As for hiring more nurses, some areas of the country just have a huge shortage of them. In these areas, the VA’s hiring effort has to be very competitive—and, for now, VA almost always loses out on hiring them—again, for many reasons, but a lot of it is about pay. Another angle is that if the VA could hire and plus up nurses from areas where there are more of them, that could help staffing everywhere. We have seen the VA start to do this. But, for now, those problems remain—and what I see as a concerted effort to smear the VA’s reputation—actually, for some years. It’s been very detrimental.

The full interview with Chenelly will be available in the Oct. 2 issue of FEND.

Reader comments

Thu, Oct 19, 2017

This is a national epidemic. They our outsourcing a ton of IT jobs as evidence by the fact that there are a fraction of advertised IT jobs than there were last year. Even last year they only promoted or hired contractors who worked for them even if they were not vets. IT is an ugly situation. I have a retired friend of mine who is a 50% disabled vet who works in claims processing as a contractor and he cannot get hired on while the FTE he works with LITERALLY sleeps at her desk 3 hours per day and does not get fired. It is a very sad situation.

Wed, Oct 11, 2017 FED-UP Montrose, NY

The main problem with the VA is the senior management mafia family mentality. They are more concerned with empire building than running a hospital. Right now facilities in New York are very under staffed. Jobs attrite and are not replaced, senior staff are pushed to retire and not replaced, and when jobs are replaced they are at a lower pay grade. Programs for the veteran's have been cut. Various services have been eliminated. We keep being told that this is in line with Dr. Shulkin's five priorities for veteran's care. I think someone needs to mention this to Dr. Shulkin and see if this is what he had in mind.

Thu, Sep 28, 2017

What is wrong with the VA? It stems from too many management bloats from the top leadership down. Get rid of most of the useless management and replace them with nurses, patient support personnel, physicians and dentists that can take over and do what they do best which is practice medicine and its allied health fields. Secondly if a patient cant been seen for what ever reason, they should be able to go to an outside practitioner for treatment. If it is an emergency situation, they need to get the person the correct and rapid medical treatment they deserve at one. Veterans sacrificed many things for the security and well being of this nation we call home. eliminate the management bloat and lip service, streamline the medical decisions to the professional staff and at the same time quality indicators for health and wellness would go up and more financial resources would be available for the veterans medical treatments.

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