WASHINGTON—The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) expressed cautious optimism about recently announced legislation aimed at improving staffing and addressing wait times at Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) medical facilities. AFGE also applauds provisions to extend advance appropriations to the full VA budget, expand GI bill benefits and enhance medical services for victims of military sexual assault.
The legislation, spearheaded by Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Bernie Sanders and Senator John McCain, recognizes the severe staffing shortages at VA medical facilities by authorizing $500 million to hire new doctors and nurses. AFGE applauds provisions for expedited hiring authority and urges swift action to fill thousands of vacant positions at medical centers across the country, identify causes of high provider turnover and ensure regular Congressional oversight of VA's staffing practices.
"As the representative of nearly 210,000 VA employees, it is essential that AFGE work closely with management to identify both short term and long term strategies for ensuring that the VA remains the health care employer of choice and that vacancies are promptly filled," said AFGE National President J. David Cox Sr. “The compromise bill drafted by Sens. Sanders and McCain will make meaningful progress toward getting our VA system back on track."
“The proposed $500 million to hire new doctors and nurses is critical to getting veterans in the door and provided with quality care," Cox continued. "However, we cannot forget that our medical teams need the proper infrastructure to ensure quality care, patient privacy and clinic productivity. Therefore, as VA increases the number of front-line providers at its facilities, it also needs to provide them with enough support staff and clinic space to get the job done."
AFGE has grave concerns, however, regarding provisions that expand contracting out of VA medical care to private facilities. As many Veterans Service Organizations have expressed, such a move could jeopardize the quality of patient care since veterans will be left largely on their own to navigate care between providers lacking specialized knowledge of this population, without the critical care coordination for their complex medical needs that only the VA can provide.
“The VA is the only health system in America built to serve warfighters and the unique conditions that afflict them,” said Cox. "Contracting out veterans' care should be used on a very limited basis, especially given the great strides that the VA has made in expanding access for veterans in rural areas through smart investments in telehealth and mobile clinics. We need to double-down on these proven systems and deliver to our veterans the quality, specialized care they earned through their service to our nation.”