At a rally in front of the Kerrville VA Medical Center Wednesday, veterans, community members, and VA employees gathered to demand that the VA fill thousands of job vacancies nationwide. They argued that current staffing levels create risks to patient safety and hazardous work environments.
Cheryl Eliano is with the American Federation of Government Employees, a federal employee union which represents around 250,000 workers at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Eliano’s husband is a Gulf War veteran who developed post-traumatic stress disorder and other physical problems. She said his visits to the VA routinely take an entire day.
“He goes at the VA at seven o’clock in the morning and doesn’t get home until four,” Eliano said. “Then there are two people working the desk with 30 people in line. It doesn’t make sense. They need to staff the VA. It’s not the workers, it’s the resources. The lack of resources.”
The Kerrville VA Medical Center is currently short-staffed by 50 positions, according to organizers at the rally. Sandra Ashley has been a registered nurse with that facility for nearly six years. Recently she’s seen Kerrville lose several of its nursing staff.
“It takes a long time to replace them once they’re gone,” she said. “I don’t know what the hold up is, what the process is. We’re not privy to that information. But yet, we’re still expected to deliver quality care. When we’re short-staffed, I feel that we fall short of that.”
Ashley said she believes that the VA prefers to hire internally.
“I have seen many qualified nurses, who are veterans, apply to positions and they’re bypassed because they’re not in the system,.” she said.
Some at the rally blamed the staffing delays on what they see as a congressional push to privatize the VA.
Katheryn Gray, an organizer with the AFGE, criticized the Veterans Choice Program, which allows eligible veterans to receive healthcare from community providers rather than VA facilities. The program was initially implemented under the Obama administration as a stopgap measure to relieve pressure on the VA system.
“The veterans have spoken, and they want VA care,” Gray said. “They don’t want choice. They want Congress to quit taking money out of VA and giving it to the private sector.”
In August, President Trump authorized $2.1 billion in additional funds for the program.
Gray expressed concern that the Choice Program may be rerouting money away from staffing.
“It’s not our department here in South Texas who’s holding up the staffing,” she said. “It’s above.”
According to a statement from the South Texas Veterans Healthcare System:
"As of November 3, 2017, the Department of Veterans Affairs had 35,553 total full-time equivalent vacancies. VA’s Veterans Health Administration is the largest integrated health care system in the nation, and VHA’s vacancy rate is about 9 percent, less than half the vacancy rate for private sector hospitals, which trend near 20 percent."
Derrick Crowe, a Democratic hopeful for Texas’ District 21, said that the VA and Congress need to put priority back on providing full services at VA facilities.
“Let’s be honest. Staffing up agencies when you lose people is hard work. Retraining new people is hard work,” he said. “But you just have to have administrators in place, and a Congress doing oversight. One that says having full services at these facilities is a priority.”
But Crowe also criticized what he sees as a political strategy to strip government programs.
“I think that there is a very clear tendency from conservative politicians to underfund public services and under-staff them,” he said, “and then use the performance of those agencies as a justification to privatize them, so that their donors can make profits.”
The American Federation of Government Employees plans to hold events nationwide to draw attention to the VA’s staffing deficits. A San Antonio rally is expected in January.
Carson Frame can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @carson_frame