Union workers blame VA Secretary Shulkin for staff shortages at veterans hospitals

Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin is facing growing pressure to fix the embattled agency – and union members who work at the VA have taken to the streets to express their frustration with him.

From Reno, Nev., to Brooklyn, N.Y., dozens of protesters took to the streets this past weekend to demand that Shulkin use the money Congress appropriated to the agency to hire more workers.

Critics say the VA facilities do not have enough workers to provide adequate healthcare – and veterans are suffering and even dying as a result of the shortage.

“Congress has given the secretary the money to fill them and he’s not filling the positions,” said J. David Cox, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, the country's largest union of federal workers.

As of last month, the department had around 35,000 full-time vacancies, according to VA Press Secretary Curtis Cashour. He defended the number, saying it was drastically less than the hospital shortages in the private sector.

“[Veterans Health Administration’s] vacancy rate is about 9 percent,” he said, “less than half the vacancy rate for private sector hospitals, which trend near 20 percent.”

Department employees say the shortage is putting pressure on the quality of services they can provide – and it’s an embarrassing disservice for those who risked their life to serve the country.

“We continue to make veterans every day, suffering from multiple injuries from PTSD, loss of lower extremities. We’re making a 60- to 70-year – or greater – commitment. The VA has to grow to take care of that veteran population, even if there are no more wars, this is a 60- to 70-year commitment," Cox said.

John Copeland, president of the Reno local union chapter, AFGE, said VA employees are doing the best they can with the scant resources available.

“The job is still being done, but we could do better if we were staffed the way we are supposed to be staffed,” Copeland said.

Copeland thinks Shulkin is dragging his feet in filling the vacancies because of there is talk that the agency will become privatized.

“Congress is not funding the VA properly, so without being funded properly the VA is not able to do the job properly, which makes it more likely and more acceptable to privatize veterans’ care,” Copeland said.

Some advocates welcome integrating the private sector more into veterans' health care. They believe it could solve many of the troubled agency’s mounting problems. The VA became a black eye during the Obama administration because wait times at the hospitals and clinics became so long, the veterans were dying.

“The fact is that a lot of veterans, including in places like Nevada, there simply is not a VA facility close to them, so what we’ve long advocated for is better integration with the private sector in giving veterans more of a choice,” said Dan Caldwell, policy director for Concerned Veterans for America. “[AFGE union members] don’t want to see fewer VA employees because that means fewer due-paying members to their union and that is their real motivation here.”

The AFGE is supporting a bill in the Senate proposed by Bernie Sanders, D-Vermont, that would give $5 billion more to the department in the hopes it hires more front-line workers to provide adequate healthcare.

“There’s people that want to take these jobs at the VA, they need an aggressive recruitment program. Seventy percent of all employees at the VA can be direct hires, they can come in and fill an application out and be hired on the spot and that’s what the VA needs to be doing,” Cox said.

Caldwell said the agency is growing at a fast rate – yet still has far to go in improving care. Over the last 10 years, the VA has added more than 100,000 employees and has seen employee growth outpace that of growth in the veteran population getting care, he said.

“They’ve nearly doubled their staff since the start of the war on terror,” Caldwell said, “it has done nothing to really improve the quality or timeliness of care at the VA.”

The VA scandal in 2014 exposed poor leaders at the agency and a firing process that made it almost impossible to get rid of them.

In June, President Trump signed the Veterans Affairs Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act that makes it easier to fire employees who are accused of malpractice or wrongdoing, rather than languish for years in the bureaucracy or get transitioned out.

But the shortages at the department remain and Copeland says privatizing aspects of the system will make it more expensive.

“This is a rally to help the VA, this is the union actually supporting the VA, not fighting the VA,” Copeland said. “We think the VA does a fantastic job for the veterans.”