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OPINION

VA can’t meet vets’ needs short 49,300 workers

By J. DAVID COX SR. | Special to Stars and Stripes | Published: June 22, 2017

Now that Congress has passed legislation lowering standards for firing Department of Veterans Affairs employees, it’s time to ask ourselves some serious questions about how this change really affects veterans care.

Will veterans start receiving their health care faster than they do today? Will delays in processing a rising number of benefits claims miraculously vanish? Will more employees feel secure enough in their jobs to blow the whistle on crooked managers or dishonest practices that harm America’s heroes?

The answer, unfortunately, is no. That’s because chipping away at due process rights for VA employees does nothing to address the massive staffing crisis facing this government agency. We’ve said this all along, yet politicians desperate to appear like they’re doing something rushed this bill through Congress nonetheless.

The real issue remains that the VA has roughly 49,300 vacancies departmentwide, according to VA Secretary David Shulkin. The Veterans Health Administration alone has 45,000 health care vacancies, and 1,500 of them are mental health positions.

Even now, almost no lawmakers are talking about the need to hire more nurses, who provide critical care to veterans every day and lift their patients’ spirits with cupcakes and balloons on their birthdays. They’re not helping the VA recruit more doctors, so more veterans can get faster access to the world-class care that the VA provides to more than 8.9 million veterans every year. And they’re not calling for the VA to hire more service representatives to help cut the backlog of disability claims, which currently tops 90,000.

They’d rather make a political spectacle of firing the guy caught watching pornography on the job than hiring the thousands of doctors, nurses and psychologists our wounded veterans so desperately need.

Leaving 49,000 vacancies open while thousands of veterans are waiting for care is a national outrage, and we need to hold lawmakers accountable for it. It’s time for Congress to put aside politics and focus on helping the VA fulfill its mission: caring for those who have borne the battle.

Here’s how to do it:

 Increase salaries for health care providers and other staff so the VA can better compete with the private sector. According to Shulkin, the VA pays 18 percent less than the private sector for mechanical engineers and one-fourth less for biomedical engineers.

Improve hiring incentives, such as tuition assistance, for doctors and other hard-to-fill jobs.

 Require the VA to issue pubic reports on its progress in hiring workers. That will enable Congress, veterans’ groups and the public to hold the agency accountable.

 Be more aggressive in recruiting health care professionals from inside the military, such as Navy corpsmen and Army medics, as they prepare to transition out of the service. One-third of federal employees are veterans already, but we can do better.

There are many more solutions, I’m sure, and we’re ready and eager to start the conversation. But until Congress addresses this staffing crisis and the VA begins filling its tens of thousands of vacancies, it’s important that all Americans ask themselves these questions about the cost of inaction:

Will more veterans face avoidable delays in getting the care they need? Will it take longer to get veterans the benefits they are owed? Will we risk losing more veterans to suicide when just one more interaction with a trained caregiver could have made the difference?

The answer, regrettably, is yes. Which begs the next question: What can we do today to make it right today? We can ask lawmakers to fill the vacant positions at the VA immediately.

J. David Cox Sr., a former VA nurse, is national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents 700,000 federal and D.C. employees, including more than 250,000 in the Department of Veterans Affairs.

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