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Why Hasn’t Congress And Trump Filled The 50,000 Vacant Positions At The VA?

AFGE will be hosting rallies around the country to raise awareness of the dangers posed by short-staffing the VA

WASHINGTON – Veterans around the country are being forced to wait longer for care. Working people at the VA are struggling to do their jobs while staffing shortages are at near dangerous levels. And Congress is busy self-congratulating themselves for making it easier to fire civil servants at the VA – one-third of whom are veterans themselves.

In response to the growing lines and number of open positions at the VA, the American Federation of Government Employees will begin holding rallies around the country – starting Wednesday, August 16 – to raise awareness of the nearly 50,000 open positions at the agency, in the hopes that Congressional leaders will finally address the problem.

“For too long the hard-working men and women who have dedicated their lives work to serving our veterans have been bullied, intimidated, and abused. They have been made villains by insiders in Washington looking to push veterans out the door into ill-equipped, unprepared, private, for-profit medical centers, and it has to stop,” said AFGE National President J. David Cox Sr.

“These faithful public servants are the ones who first brought to light that management was hiding wait lists. They’re the ones who let us know when facilities are falling behind. And they’re the ones who know best how to treat our veterans. Why can’t Congress give veterans the support they need? Why won’t Congress fill the 49,000 vacancies at the VA?” he asked.

Since January’s hiring freeze was announced, VA Secretary David Shulkin has been discussing the alarming number of vacancies at the VA, and the need to fill them. “We have 45,000 job openings. That’s too many,” Shulkin said in January. “I need to fill every one of those openings in order to make sure that we’re doing the very best for our veterans.” In the following months Shulkin began an upward revision of the openings, and in May announced that there were 49,000 in the entire system – with no plan to fill them in the works.

Instead, Congress passed the Department of Veterans Affairs Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act of 2017, which made it easier to fire front-line workers for little or no cause at all.

“We cannot allow veterans to be forced to wait for the care they deserve because Congress and the White House won’t take action,” said Cox. “We will be holding rallies in cities across the country to raise the awareness of thousands of open positions that no one seems interested to fill. Veterans want and need the VA, but without it being properly staffed, it’ll be harder and harder to give them the care they deserve,” he added.

VA Union Calls on Senate to ‘Work on Fixing, Not Dismantling Veterans’ Healthcare’

AFGE applauds efforts to increase hiring, but finds that proposed legislation falls short of what’s needed

WASHINGTON – On Tuesday the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs held a hearing to address proposed legislation aimed at improving veterans’ access to care. With 49,000 vacancies at VA hospitals and clinics nationwide and a growing veteran population, AFGE cautioned lawmakers that some of the proposals under consideration may lead to the dismantling of the VA healthcare system and undermine the VA’s efforts to hire desperately needed staff.

The American Federation of Government Employees, which represents 250,000 working people at the VA, submitted written testimony to the hearing, “Pending Health Care Legislation,” that addresses the positive and negative bills that will alter the future of the VA.

AFGE’s comments focused on several bills that will increase the hiring and access to care for veterans at the only healthcare system tailored to their unique needs. In addition, the union’s statement raised concerns about proposals that would vastly expand the use of non-VA care to such an extreme as to threaten the world-class healthcare system’s long-term survival.

In its comments on S. 1325, the Better Workforce for Veterans Act from Senators Jon Tester and Jerry Moran from Montana and Kansas respectively, AFGE supported provisions aimed at improvement of management and human resources practices. But, the union expressed concern about the adverse impact of new hiring authorities on promotion opportunities for current employees. AFGE also questioned a bill provision to use expensive Public Health Service medical officers who lack the expertise and stability of VA’s own workforce, and another that tries to fix VA police recruitment and retention problems without affording them much needed law enforcement officer status.

“We support new legislation that will allow for the VA to fill the glaring number of open positions at the agency,” said AFGE National President J. David Cox Sr. “Veterans want the VA. Veterans need the VA. They have said time and again that they don’t want to be forced out into the private sector with longer wait times, less access to care, and medical professionals ill-equipped to handle their unique needs,” he added.

In their testimony, AFGE also highlighted several proposals for reforming current programs that provide non-VA care.  “AFGE strongly opposes the Veterans Choice Act of 2017,” from Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia, AFGE said in its testimony. Adding, “This bill would vastly increase the use of non-VA care through a massive expansion of the Choice Program. Like the Concerned Veterans of America plan that was soundly rejected by the Commission on Care, this bill would erode the critical core of the VA health care system and put such an enormous financial strain on it threatens its very survival.”

In contrast, AFGE praised the Improving Veterans Access to Community Care Act of 2017 from Sen. Tester. The union lauded the legislator’s efforts to modernize VA services, lay the foundation for VA-run integrated networks, and keep the VA as the primary provider and coordinator of VA care. AFGE said these provisions protect “the critical resources that the VA must retain in order to keep its promise to veterans”

“Veterans have overwhelmingly said that they want Congress to work on fixing, not dismantling veterans’ healthcare, and Sen. Isakson’s bill does nothing of the sort,” said Cox. “We believe that the Improving Veterans Access to Community Care Act of 2017 is a much better approach – albeit with its own faults – to providing veterans options outside of the VA if they so choose.

“Ultimately, AFGE will stand with veterans who make up one-third of workers at the VA, and the millions that use it to receive world-class medical treatment. It’s been proven time and again that the VA is the best option for those who have borne the battle, and we’ll never stop fighting to make it the best that it can be,” said Cox.

VA Executive Order Can Only Succeed if Workers’ Rights Are Preserved

AFGE supports new tools to reduce mismanagement and misconduct but cautions against law changes that silence frontline employees

WASHINGTON – In response to President Trump’s Executive Order on Improving Accountability and Whistleblower Protection at the Department of Veterans Affairs, American Federation of Government Employees National President J. David Cox Sr. issued the following statement:

“We fully support and appreciate new tools to ensure the correct response to mismanagement, bad managers, and underperforming employees at the VA. When employees are found to have engaged in misconduct or performance that fails to meet the highest standards required by the VA, they should be terminated.

“Today’s order addresses the potential bad actors and chronically underperforming managers, reduces layers of management, and allocates new resources to protect employees who report mismanagement and other risks to veterans – all of which are supported by AFGE.

“But, we are concerned that so-called accountability legislation introduced by Sen. Rubio of Florida that is also supported by the administration will destroy the best accountability tools: the voices of frontline workers – and potentially turn the VA into an at-will workforce that could lead to the agency’s demise.

“Any new office created by this order must be staffed by individuals who are free of political affiliation and can render bias-free judgments, and can only be effective if the frontline employees who want to come forward with their concerns keep their due process rights and rights under their collective bargaining agreements.

“The VA – and all federal agencies – must present evidence that misconduct or performance failure has occurred. And those who judge that evidence must be an impartial third party. If those conditions are not met, we risk harming the innocent and encourage corruption and politicization of the agency – consciously or not.

“Time and again it’s the frontline employees who have come forward and spoken up against management covering up wait times. We cannot risk providing cover for incompetent or malicious managers.

“Veterans care is paramount to the focus of the VA – including the one-third of the workforce who are veterans themselves. All future actions must consider the needs of the veterans being cared for at the hospital, as well as those who work there. Although this is a positive step toward improving veterans’ care, there are still 45,000 vacancies that must be addressed.”

Politicians are Trying to Sell Off Veterans’ Health Care

Veterans_defend_the_promiseIt’s just… wrong.

It’s SO wrong, I’m having a hard time writing about it.

Politicians want to get rid of the VA healthcare system, and replace it with a system of vouchers that veterans would use “to purchase their own health insurance in the private marketplace.”

And they’re justifying this by pointing fingers at the VA system’s waiting lists. Nevermind that the system has a severe staff shortage, with 41,500 unfilled health care positions. Nevermind the amount of medical care that veterans need, since more than one-quarter of them are disabled. The politicians say it’s all the VA’s fault, and they’re using it as an excuse to privatize veterans’ health care.

So… who’s going to profit from this?

Probably all those special-interest campaign donors. (The health care industry spent more than $142 million on the 2014 congressional elections. Plus another $487 million lobbying, last year.)

And… how is this going to work?

Somebody – probably Congress – is going to decide how much each voucher will be worth. And then veterans will have to find their own health care. And if that health care costs more than the vouchers are worth… well, that’s not something that Congress will have to figure out.

Because by that point, the VA will be dismantled. Gone.

And it’ll just be a problem for each individual veteran… how to cover the gap between what Congress will pay, and what their health care will cost.

— — — —

Here’s what I think:

The idea of dismantling the VA healthcare system… it’s just wrong.

The thought of private healthcare corporations profiting off our veterans… it’s wrong, beyond words.

Want to know more about profits in the health industry? Start with this piece by whistleblower Wendell Potter.

Want to know more about the Koch-founded astroturf group “driving the VA scandal” for political purposes?  Start here.

— — — —

Veterans_deserve_quality_healthcareThis past week, two polling firms – one Republican, one Democrat – joined together to poll veterans about what they want, in their healthcare system.

The results shouldn’t be a surprise: Veterans want to keep their VA health care system – but they want it fixed, and properly staffed.

Veterans want health care providers who are specialists in veterans’ health care. They need doctors, nurses and support staff who already know about the health impacts of their military service. They don’t want to have to explain themselves – explain the circumstances and the consequences of their military service – every single time they need medical care. They want health care professionals who already know.

And veterans need 100% of their care covered. If the VA is replaced by a voucher system, that won’t happen.

You can read the full poll here. If you’ve talked with any veterans recently, none of it will be a surprise.

— — — —

This morning I am remembering particularly

  • two children of a veteran who committed suicide. Suicide is one of the least-discussed “health impacts” of military service. The Veterans Crisis Line is available here.
  • the veteran with PTSD who I spent time with, last weekend. Where to Get Help for Veterans with PTSD is available here.

To all of our veterans, thank you for your service.

Rep. Kuster Questions VA Officials On Physician Shortages (VIDEO)

Kuster Sponsors Legislation to Increase Access to Care for Veterans, Continues to Question VA during Committee Hearing, and Raises Concerns about Whistleblower Protection

WASHINGTON, DC – Congresswoman Annie Kuster (NH-02) has helped introduce the Underserved Veterans Access to Health Care Act, which will add 2,000 medical residency positions at VA hospitals in communities that are facing physician shortages. By adding these slots, this legislation will bring the VA back up to its historical norm as a provider of graduate medical education, and will greatly increase patient access to care at the VA.  Kuster believes no veteran should ever have to wait for care, and last night during a House Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing she continued to question VA officials about why, despite Congressional action like this bill, the VA has not made more progress itself towards increasing care options for our nation’s veterans.

“I was proud to help introduce a bill to decrease physician shortages at the VA, so no veteran will have to wait for care simply because of a lack of doctors. However, I was very disappointed by the VA’s testimony last night, where witnesses were unable to provide sufficient information about why this shortfall – not to mention other problems at the VA –  had not yet been addressed,” said Kuster. “I am shocked by the amount of problems the VA has allowed to linger and frankly has been covering up, and during my questions last night I said enough is enough. VA officials must be straightforward and provide necessary data and cost-benefit analysis about the issues plaguing VA facilities, so Congress can step in and help provide necessary resources for the VA so no veteran is ever again forced to wait for care.”

Kuster is additionally calling on the VA to review all whistleblower protections and is urging VA staff with any information about patient wait times or other mismanagement to come forward. A new report discussed during last night’s hearing shows that staff who have attempted to report problems at the VA may have been ignored. Kuster has been a strong advocate for whistleblower protections at the VA, and last month she sent a letter to the New England VA Network Director requesting protection for staffers who report problems at any of the New England VA medical centers.

“I’m very disturbed by a new report from the Office of the Special Counsel (OSC) to President Obama, which raises serious concerns over VA medical facilities ignoring whistleblowers’ disclosures on risks to health and safety of veterans seeking care. This culture of corruption can no longer continue and systemic failures at many local VA medical facilities are preventing the VA from taking the necessary steps to provide quality care to veterans. The VA cannot continue to put veterans’ health and safety at risk to cover up corruption and a failing system. I look forward to reviewing the Office of Medical Inspector’s investigation on how whistleblower recommendations are tracked and reviewed.  Our veterans deserve better.”

Since allegations of long wait times at the Phoenix VA were first discovered by the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, Congresswoman Kuster has repeatedly called for increased oversight and immediate action at the VA to prevent any further mismanagement. She called for a thorough, nationwide audit of all VA medical centers, and she continues to call for additional audits to immediately identify and fix any problems at VA centers across the country. She has also provided strict oversight over the VA medical centers serving New Hampshire, and she has called on the New England VA Network Director to conduct a complete review of wait times and to provide whistleblower protection for staff that comes forward with information about mismanagement. She also held a roundtable discussion with Veteran Service Organizations and veteran leaders to hear about their experiences at the VA medical centers, and she continues to monitor their care in New Hampshire.

VA Employees’ Union Blames Chronic Understaffing for Long Wait Lists

Lexington Veterans Affairs Medical Center (WikiCommon)

Lexington Veterans Affairs Medical Center (WikiCommon)

AFGE calls for reallocation of resources to frontline caregivers

AFGE Logo SmallWASHINGTON—The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) points to understaffing and inadequate funding of frontline services as main causes of long wait times for veterans seeking care at Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) facilities. The agency made promises and set standards that, in many locations, may have been impossible to fulfill, given the inadequate allocation of resources to frontline VA Logocaregivers. In such an environment, instances of wait list gaming become almost inevitable.

AFGE members report shortages of providers and support personnel to provide timely access to veterans seeking care at most VHA facilities. The shortages in primary care and a number of specialties, including psychiatry, are directly linked to management’s manipulation of wait list data at many VA medical facilities. Scheduling clerks consistently report that they lack the sufficient provider slots to make timely appointments. But VA’s performance standards provide strong financial incentives for managers to hide underlying staffing and resource problems by “scrubbing wait lists”.

“When we look deeper into this issue of extended wait times for veterans to receive an appointment, we have to recognize that understaffing is a major culprit,” said AFGE National President J. David Cox Sr. “All around the country, medical facilities are understaffed, with numerous frontline care positions going unfilled. How can the VA expect to keep up with the growing needs of our nation’s heroes if it doesn’t properly staff its facilities?”

Congress has made earnest efforts to provide the agency with the resources it needs to carry out its mission, but it has not gone far enough. According to the Independent Budget for the Department of Veterans Affairs, developed each year by leading veterans groups, funding levels will remain an estimated $2 billion short in FY 2015 and approximately $500 million short for FY 2016. Making matters worse, far too many precious dollars are spent on unnecessary layers of management and administration, rather than direct patient care. The growth of middle management positions within the agency has ballooned to unprecedented levels, from fewer than 300 in 1995 to more than 1,700 by a recent count, costing taxpayers $203 million annually.

“Understaffing has a strong, negative impact on employees’ ability to do their jobs,” said AFGE National VA Council President Alma Lee. “Our medical professionals are dealing with excessive caseloads and insufficient support staff. This is the reason why there are problems scheduling patient appointments. These dedicated public servants try to do more with less because the agency has not allocated the proper resources to needed services, but they cannot manufacture extra hours in a day. When they do try to speak out about staffing shortages and list manipulation, they are often faced with harsh management retaliation. It’s time for the agency to reexamine where its dollars are spent and put them where they are needed most: patient care.”

AFGE also points to the ever-increasing reliance on federal contractors as a key driver of growing costs at the VA. According to the Project on Government Oversight, the cost of hiring a contractor is 1.83 times more expensive on average than hiring a federal employee in the same position. Despite this vast cost-gap, the VHA system has spent billions on contract services in recent years, including a $9.3 billion contract with private health providers for its Patient Centered Community Care (PC3) initiative. Rather than leaning on costly contractors as a band-aid, the VA needs to address the chronic understaffing issue head-on and hire the frontline care providers our veterans count on.

“Our nation’s vets deserve world-class care, free of extended wait times and unnecessary bureaucracy,” said Cox. “We challenge the VA to keep its promise to our nation’s heroes. Let’s fill these vacant positions, recruit the best and the brightest to provide exceptional care and end the toxic culture that prevents employees from speaking out about patient care problems.”

NH Congresswoman Carol Shea-Porter Continues Work to Address Current Military Challenges

Shea-Porter Continues Work to Address Current Military Challenges

Legislation focuses on VA backlog, military sexual assault, and veterans jobs

MANCHESTER, NH – Congresswoman Carol Shea-Porter continued her commitment to addressing the current challenges facing veterans and military families. She is announcing her support for: a package of bills to address the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) backlog of claims for disability compensation; legislation to help returning veterans get a job; and a House Resolution to reduce sexual assault in the military.

“Soldiers pledge never to leave one of their own behind on the battlefield, and we should honor that pledge by refusing to leave soldiers, veterans, or their families behind,” Shea-Porter said. “This common sense legislation will help veterans access the health benefits they’ve earned, find a job they’re qualified for, and help eliminate the scourge of sexual assault in the military.”

The package of bills to address the VA claims backlog would help settle veterans’ claims and compensation faster by:

  • Extending the VA’s authority to have contractors provide medical exams, giving the VA much needed support in processing claims.
  • Ensuring the Department of Defense provides certified, complete, and electronic records to the VA within 21 days.
  • Expediting claims processing by educating veterans on the quickest route to receive their decision.
  • Bringing greater transparency to the backlog by requiring the VA to track information in an online setting.
  • Strengthening accountability by requesting the VA provide quarterly updates to Congress on the timeliness of other agencies in fulfilling their information requests.
  • Requesting the Veterans Benefits Administration establish a pilot that would utilize the highest performing offices to adjudicate the most difficult and time consuming claims, such as PTSD.
  • Encouraging the VA to look at better ways to process claims in an electronic system.

In addition to helping returning troops access the health care they deserve, Shea-Porter is committed to helping them find a job. That’s why she recently cosponsored the Veteran Employment Transition Act, which would allow employers to claim a new, streamlined $2,400 credit when they hire a recently discharged veteran.

To help reduce sexual assault in the military, Shea-Porter signed onto H.Res. 213, which would establish the Special Committee on Sexual Assault and Abuse in the Armed Forces to conduct oversight, ensure accountability, and report on the activities of the Department of Defense to prevent, reduce, prosecute, and provide victims’ services for cases of sexual assault and abuse in the Armed Forces.

Rep Shea-Porter’s Statement on Hilda Solis Resignation and Rep Kuster Named To New Committee

Sec. of Labor
Hilda Solis

Congresswoman Carol Shea-Porter released the following statement on the resignation of Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis.

“I have been privileged to call Secretary Solis a friend both in Congress and at the Department of Labor,” said Congresswoman Shea-Porter, who served with Secretary Solis in the House of Representatives. “Secretary Solis’ public service has been remarkable and stands as an example for our country. I wish her well in her future endeavors, and I now look forward to working closely with the next Secretary of Labor on the critical issues facing New Hampshire and our workers.”

Congresswoman Kuster Appointed to House Veterans’ Affairs Committee

One of the most bipartisan committees in the House of Representatives, Veterans’ Affairs provides oversight of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and has jurisdiction over critical issues including servicemember pensions, veterans’ hospitals and medical care, and vocational training and education for veterans returning to civilian life.

“I’m proud to receive this appointment to the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, and to have this opportunity to advocate for the courageous veterans, servicemembers, and military families who have sacrificed so much for our country,” said Kuster.  “In the coming weeks and months, I look forward to meeting with veterans and veteran advocates across New Hampshire’s Second District and being a strong voice for them in Congress. On the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, I will work with members of both parties to strengthen health care benefits, cut bureaucratic red tape, expand job opportunities, and properly honor the dedicated men and women who have worn the uniform of the United States and deserve nothing less than our full, unwavering support.”

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