(WASHINGTON)—Chronic under-funding of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), insufficient staffing levels, poor compensation and mandatory overtime are just a few of the issues causing a patient care crisis within the VA says the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), the union representing VA nurses. To confront the growing crisis, AFGE recently joined RNs Working Together, a coalition of AFL-CIO unions tasked with coordinating organizing and bargaining activities to improve patient care nationally and give nurses a strong voice in fixing health care systems in the public and private sectors.
“As VA nurses struggle to care for the nation’s veterans, this new structure will allow unions to pool our resources, leading to more aggressive legislative, political and bargaining activities that will benefit nurses and challenge the way the government and the health care industry treat some of its most valuable resources,” says AFGE National Vice President Jane Nygaard.
RNs Working Together is an Industrial Coordinating Committee (ICC), a new structure that is designed to foster common strategies and practices for unions within a given industry. Unions that agree to join ICCs will receive additional support from the labor federation. AFL-CIO unions that do not join the ICC will be prohibited from organizing in that industry.
“VA nurses constantly tell us that low staffing levels top their list of concerns,” says Nygaard. “VA nurses are being forced to take care of too many patients at one time. If you talk to nurses around the country, most will tell you that understaffing is driving nurses out of the profession and having a negative impact on the quality of patient care.”
VA nurses are especially concerned about staffing levels due to the growing number of injured veterans returning from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan and the needs of a growing older veterans population. Despite this, the administration’s fiscal 2007 budget contains no boost in nursing home funding and actually includes a 13 percent funding cut for veterans’ programs by the year 2011.
“Once again the administration has proposed a ‘smoke and mirrors budget,’ says Nygaard. “The new budget is based on unproven management efficiencies, overly optimistic collection rates, and dead-on-arrival proposals for increased drug co-pays and enrollment fees. Our veterans deserve better.”
Additionally, recent studies have revealed a clear link between staffing shortages, overworked nurses and patient care. According to a University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing study, 20,000 people die each year because they checked into a hospital with overworked nurses. The study also found that Americans scheduled for routine surgeries run a 31 percent greater risk of dying if they are admitted to a hospital with a severe shortage of nurses. Staffing shortages also are leading to more mandatory overtime for already overworked nurses, high turnover rates and recruiting problems.
“Increasing the pay for nurses would go a long way toward increased recruiting and retention,” says Nygaard. “However, when the administration refuses to properly fund the VA, we are back to square one and that means that veterans won’t get the care they need or deserve. VA nurses are extremely concerned about the persistent wear and tear on the VA health care system, which both parallels and affects all U.S. health care systems. If something isn’t done soon, both the public and private sector systems will be broken beyond repair and this country can’t afford to let that happen.”
The eight unions that comprise RNs Working Together are AFGE, United American Nurses, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, American Federation of Teachers, Communications Workers of America, United Steelworkers, Office and Professional Employees International Union, and United Auto Workers.