(Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON – The number of vacancies across the Department of Veterans Affairs increased to nearly 49,000 by the end of 2018, according to new data released by the VA under mandate from Congress.

The data show there were 48,985 unfilled jobs across the agency as of Dec. 31, an increase of nearly 4,000, or 7 percent, from what was reported midway through 2018. The agency began reporting its vacancies in June to comply with the Mission Act, a major VA reform bill.

The VA cited 35,000 vacancies in 2017.

The American Federation of Government Employees, a federal union, blasted the VA this week, arguing the statistics exemplify a push toward “privatization” of the department. The VA, though, called privatization a “myth” and attributed the vacancy numbers to normal turnover and workforce growth.

The new numbers were released at a time of increased scrutiny on the VA’s vacancies. Some lawmakers and veterans groups have criticized the agency for its inability to fill all staff positions, particularly in its vast health care system.

Of the vacancies, 42,790 are within the VA health care system, with 24,800 in the medical and dental fields, the data shows.

AFGE, which represents hundreds of thousands of VA workers, accused VA leaders of starving the department of resources as they work to expand veterans’ access to private doctors.

“The administration is setting us up to fail so they can dismantle veterans’ preferred health care provider,” said Alma Lee, president of AFGE’s national veterans affairs council. “We believe this push for privatization cannot be allowed to happen.”

VA Press Secretary Curt Cashour called AFGE’s accusations unfounded.

About 11 percent of the agency’s 420,000 authorized workforce is unfilled – a vacancy rate that Cashour insisted is consistent with industry standards. He noted the VA brought on about 9,000 employees last quarter and lost 6,000, for a net increase of 3,000.

“VA has more employees than ever before, its budget is bigger than ever before,” Cashour said. “Privatization is a myth that has been thoroughly debunked.”

Democrats are expected to address the issue of VA vacancies soon. Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., the new chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, has said it’s a top priority for the committee. Twitter: @nikkiwentling

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Nikki Wentling has worked for Stars and Stripes since 2016. She reports from Congress, the White House, the Department of Veterans Affairs and throughout the country about issues affecting veterans, service members and their families. Wentling, a graduate of the University of Kansas, previously worked at the Lawrence Journal-World and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The National Coalition of Homeless Veterans awarded Stars and Stripes the Meritorious Service Award in 2020 for Wentling’s reporting on homeless veterans during the coronavirus pandemic. In 2018, she was named by the nonprofit HillVets as one of the 100 most influential people in regard to veterans policymaking.

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