The Department of Veterans Affairs is the second largest federal agency in the government with four important missions: taking care of our nation’s veterans, training a majority of our country’s doctors and other healthcare professionals, conducting medical research, and serving as a backup to the private sector healthcare system during national emergencies, just like it did during the Covid-19 pandemic.
In other words, the VA is instrumental in our country’s healthcare system and its success. Yet bad policies and politics have managed to stand in the way of the VA serving our nation’s heroes and the American public that benefits from its expertise.
The Veterans Healthcare Policy Institute and AFGE’s National VA Council last week released a report on the results of a survey which asked employees about the impact of recent legislation and administrative actions on employees, veterans, and their families.
Some of the major findings are:
- 96% of Veterans Health Administration respondents said their facility needs more frontline clinical staff
- 75% said their facility needs more administrative staff
- 77% said that there are vacant positions for which no recruitment is taking place
- 77% reported that their VHA facilities have closed beds, units, and/or programs due to staffing and budget shortfalls
- 55% said they have less time to deliver direct patient care and support services than they did four years ago
- 82% said that their work referring, monitoring, and coordinating outside care has increased in the last four years
- Half of respondents said that the VHA’s centralized HR activities under the new Human Resources Modernization Project has worsened delays in hiring and is contributing to the hemorrhaging of staff. Over 90% said candidates lost interest due to HR delays
- 62 % of VBA employees are considering leaving their job in the next few years, primarily due to understaffing and unrealistic work metrics
At a press conference on March 21, VHPI senior policy analyst Suzanne Gordon said the VA has several serious challenges: it is not hiring enough and fast enough. It is not paying market-based salaries. It is not doing anything to do away with the Human Resources Modernization Project that has delayed hiring. It is not getting enough funding. It is outsourcing too much veterans’ health care to private-sector providers who are often not equipped to take care of our veterans’ unique needs.
“They could reverse Human Resources Modernization Project tomorrow. Add telehealth as access to care,” Gordon said when asked what the VA can do right now.
MJ Burke, NVAC’s first executive vice president, said employees don’t always get locality pay – they’ll get it if the local office has the money. Retention allowance is being floated but not fulfilled.
“It’s gimmickry, and guess what, [employees] are going to walk out the door,” she said.
To improve employee morale and the VA’s ability to deliver care to veterans, the report recommends a series of policy solutions:
- Fully staff and fund the VA. The VA currently has 76,000 vacant positions.
- Hire staff in a timely manner and make sure provider compensation is competitive with local markets
- Rescind the Human Resources Modernization project and reassign HR staff to local facilities
- Develop detailed and accurate quality comparisons between the VA and private providers as required by the fiscal 2022 omnibus bill
- Reform the VA’s access standards, including by counting in-house telehealth as access to care. Private sector providers are able to count telehealth as access to care. VA providers should be able to do the same.
- Pass the Employee Fairness Act, which will allow certain VA medical professionals to file a grievance on patient safety issues and improve working conditions.
- Get rid of the Veterans Benefits Administration’s so-called “talk time” requirements, rules that mandate calls lasting only a few minutes. These talk time rules, put in place due to staffing shortages, hurt veterans because they limit employees’ ability to accurately assess complicated claims and answer veterans’ questions.