President Joe Biden has nominated Denis R. McDonough to be the next Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs. AFGE members are hopeful that McDonough, if confirmed by the Senate, will work with the union to rebuild the VA and its workforce so that the agency can provide the best possible care to our country’s veterans.
In a statement for the record submitted to the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs on McDonough’s nomination, AFGE laid out major challenges facing the new VA secretary, saying the union stands ready to be a true labor partner with the new Secretary as we all work to navigate these difficult times.
McDonough is off to a good start on that front. He already took time to meet with AFGE President Everett Kelley and AFGE National Veterans Affairs Council President Alma Lee last month to discuss what the next VA Secretary needs to do to lead the VA through the COVID-19 crisis and build the agency back better to deliver on the sacred promise made to our nation’s heroes.
“The task at hand for the next Secretary is daunting, but with that comes great opportunity,” AFGE said. “As VA Secretary, Mr. McDonough will have the opportunity to lead the department through the pandemic as well as to grow and strengthen the VA. AFGE and its NVAC look forward to working with him to make this a reality.”
Here are the 5 challenges facing the new VA secretary:
The first and most pressing issue McDonough will face is responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. The VA still lacks adequate staffing and personal protective equipment (PPE) to manage the outbreak. To minimize the spread of the virus in VA facilities, telework should be expanded for those whose work doesn’t require in-person interaction with patients.
In addition, after nearly a year spent on the frontlines battling COVID-19 under outright disrespectful leadership who routinely belittled and insulted VA workers on the campaign trail, VA workers are tired and demoralized. That’s why AFGE spent the majority of last year asking Congress and the previous administration to provide VA employees with premium pay to compensate for the additional risks they are assuming.
2. Workplace rights
There are a lot of employees at the VA that still do not have full workplace rights. That’s because the VA has imposed policies that prevent Title 38 VA health care professionals from bargaining over routine workplace matters such as schedules, reassignment, and proper payment for weekend and evening work -- a right currently afforded to their counterparts within the VA, the Department of Defense and the Bureau of Prisons. As a result, doctors, dentists, registered nurses, physician assistants, and other healthcare professionals are prohibited from sounding the alarm about things that could lead to medical errors and patient harm – excessive mandatory overtime, staffing shortages, or lack of proper training.
To better serve veterans, our union is asking the new secretary to work with us to end this unnecessary, dangerous workplace practice.
In the third quarter of 2020, the VA reported over 55,000 vacancies. A few months later, however, the number dropped to 32,000. The reason that the VA gave was the result of a “position validation review resulting in a reduction of 22,385 vacant positions that were in excess of available funding.”
To recap: after being routinely chastised for the rising vacancy rate, the VA suddenly found a rationale for making 22,385 vacancies disappear. Seems pretty suspect, right?
It is imperative that we work together to ensure we have appropriate internal capacity instead of inventing rationales for sending veterans to unaccountable private contractors.
Since 2018 AFGE has watched with great concern as the VA has implemented the VA MISSION Act. Once this legislation became law, the previous administration moved recklessly to use the broad authorization to outsource vital care and services. Chaos ensued. The new secretary will need to investigate widespread reports of lack of payment to outside providers and resulting collections sent to veterans. Outside providers are also not required to meet the same accountability standards as VA providers in the treatment of veterans.
AFGE will be asking Congress and the new Secretary to work to bring that care back into VA medical facilities.
5. Issues at the VBA
There are technological issues plaguing the Veterans Benefits Administration claims processing work.
The Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) serves as the VA’s gatekeeper, and makes sure veterans receive the benefits to which they are entitled. To allow the VBA to better serve veterans, performance standards must be fair and attainable for all employees while retaining the flexibility to adjust for variable difficulty in an employee’s workload.
The Secretary also needs to fix the National Work Queue (NWQ), which was created to improve the pace of claims processing. We agree with a recent Inspector General’s report that said eliminating specialization has had a negative impact on veterans. Before the implementation of the NWQ, complex cases such as Military Sexual Trauma (MST)-related claims were handled by Special Operation teams. Under the NWQ, all claims, including the complex ones, are processed by Veteran Service Representatives (VSRs) and Rating Veteran Service Representatives (RVSRs), many of whom do not have training or expertise to process MST claims.
“We have a shared belief that our nation’s heroes deserve the best care and services possible, and it’s up to us to work together toward that shared goal,” AFGE said. “AFGE stands ready to be a true labor partner with the Secretary and we ask that he work with us in good faith to resolve any differences and accomplish great service.”