VA nurses expose under staffing that poses risks to patients

Nurses at the Little Rock Veterans Affairs (VA) hospital recently stood up for their patients by calling attention to a severe under staffing problem at the hospital.

Thirty nurses, members of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) Local 2054, filed a complaint with the VA’s Inspector General and the Arkansas State Board of Nursing charging that the hospital’s under staffing puts patients at risk.

Then on June 26, two dozen nurses held an informational picket at the hospital to call attention to the risks faced by patients.

“We are down 150 nurses. Floating to areas we aren’t skilled in is at an all-time high,” said Barbara Casanova, president of Local 2054 and a registered nurse at the hospital. “We can’t deliver appropriate care under those circumstances.”

“We promised to keep our veterans safe, but we’re very worried that something could go wrong,” continued Casanova.

David Cox, Sr., AFGE president, said that the under staffing problem in Little Rock is not unique; it’s a problem at VA hospitals and clinics all over the US.

According to Cox, there are currently 49,000 unfilled positions at VA hospitals across the country.

“Every vacancy is a missed opportunity to make good on our promise to care for those who have borne the battle,” said Cox, Sr. “One vacancy is a tragedy; 49,000 is a national disgrace.”

Cox said that it has been difficult to attract candidates to fill the vacant VA positions because of two things: a constant barrage of anti-government rhetoric by politicians and special interest groups that want to privatize the VA and “pay and benefit cuts that scare away qualified doctors, nurses, and other health care professionals.”

The anti-government rhetoric is being transformed into policy by the Trump administration, and its actions have exacerbated the VA’s under staffing problem.

One of the President’s first orders of business when he took office was to freeze hiring by government agencies like the VA.

That freeze was lifted in April, but its  effects continue to linger as the VA tries to catch up with a hiring backlog.

Health care professionals who might be interested in taking those jobs may think twice about doing so because those jobs could end up being cut if the VA continues to privatize more services.

President Trump is a big fan of privatization, and his proposed budget for the VA reflects his predilection for privatization.

His budget boosts funding for the VA’s Choice program, which the American Legion’s National Commander calls a “stealth privatization attempt,” by $2.9 billion in 2018 and $3.9 billion in 2019.

To help pay for the increase in funding for the Choice program, which allows local VA administrators to divert patients to private health care providers, the President’s proposed budget cuts veteran disability benefits by $3.6 billion.

“We are alarmed by the cannibalization of services needed for the Choice program,” said Schmidt. “It is a ‘stealth’ privatization attempt which The American Legion fully opposes.”

In addition to the threat that their jobs could be privatized, VA nurses and other federal employees have had to put up with pay freezes and benefit cuts, which Cox said also makes it difficult to fill open positions.

Between 2010 and 2013, all federal employees including those at the VA had their pay frozen.

Between 2010 and 2016, federal employees also suffered lost wages due to furloughs caused by budget impasses and higher pension contributions.

Now President Trump is seeking even more cuts to federal employees’ wages and benefits.

His proposed budget raises pension contributions for most federal employees to 7 percent of an employee’s salary, a 900 percent increase.

Higher pension increases will mean less take-home pay.

If the Trump budget were to be enacted, a federal employee hired before 2013 and earning $50,000 a year would see her pension contribution increase from $400 a year to $3500 a year, amounting to a 6 percent pay cut.

Trump’s proposed budget would also reduce future pensions and eliminate cost-of-living adjustments.

Back in Little Rock, the nurses’ actions that brought attention to the under staffing problem seems to have done some good.

Hospital management at the Little Rock VA said that 54 new nurses have been hired at the facility.

Casanova has been encouraged by the recent hirings, but if President Trump’s budget becomes a reality and privatization increases and wages and benefits decrease, the Little Rock VA and others will be hard pressed to close the staffing gap that endangers the health of its patients.

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