Veterans Affairs nurses in Little Rock, Arkansas, had a choice to make. Their hospital has been severely understaffed for years and management did little to improve the situation. Should they just stay quiet and carry on with their lives, or should they speak up because our country’s veterans’ safety is at risk?
To these nurses, it was an easy choice to make. They went to nursing school and made a promise to keep their patients safe. So a few weeks ago a group of 30 Little Rock VA hospital nurses filed a complaint with the VA, the VA Inspector General, and State Board of Nursing about staffing shortages. On June 26, about two dozen nurses held a picket outside the hospital to bring attention to the severe understaffing that threatens veterans’ safety.
“We are down 150 nurses. Floating to areas we aren't skilled in is at an all-time high,” said AFGE Local 2054 President Barbara Casanova, who is also a registered nurse. “We can't deliver appropriate care under those circumstances. Scheduling has suffered a direct impact of understaffing.”
“We promised to keep our veterans safe, but we’re very worried that something could go wrong,” she added.
Since then, the VA said it has hired 54 nurses and is detailing two nurses from each of the 16 Veterans Integrated Service Networks hospitals, among other things. Cassanova is encouraged by the VA’s response.
“We are cautiously optimistic,” she said.
The Little Rock VA healthcare system is one of the largest and busiest VA medical centers in the country. It serves 65,000 veterans a year and provides a wide variety of inpatient and outpatient services including complex surgical procedures and extended rehabilitative care. The system also serves as a teaching facility for more than 1,500 students and residents with the University of Arkansas as its principle affiliate.
But the Problem Is Much Bigger: 49,000 Vacancies Nationwide
Understaffing is not unique to Little Rock. VA hospitals across the country are facing staffing shortages for years. That’s because the VA has had a hard time filling 49,000 vacancies, thanks to politicians’ anti-government rhetoric and pay and benefit cuts that scare away qualified doctors, nurses, and other health care professionals.
“Every vacancy is a missed opportunity to make good on our promise to care for those who have borne the battle,” said AFGE President J. David Cox Sr. “One vacancy is a tragedy; 49,000 is a national disgrace.”
The staffing shortages have resulted in the VA sending veterans to expensive for-profit private hospitals that are not specialized in veterans’ illnesses and often times do not have the expertise required to take care of them.
With such a profound need for VA caregivers, you would assume the Trump administration would prioritize hiring for these critical open positions.
They’re actually doing the opposite. First, they put in place a hiring freeze earlier this year. A few months later, they proposed a budget that would expand the Choice privatization program with an intent to make it permanent even though veterans have said they don’t like the Choice program and don’t want the VA privatized. The administration and some members of Congress exploited the waitlist scandal, caused by staffing shortages, to further privatize the VA and enrich private hospital CEOs and special interests like the Koch brothers.
The question is, are you going to do something about it?
Veterans didn’t serve our country just to come back to wait in line or fight with for-profit hospitals to get the care they deserve. Call your members of Congress at (844) 669-5146 (D.C. Office) or (888) 775-3148 (District Office) and tell them to immediately fill the 49,000 positions and reject the privatization plan.