VA Nurses Protest Staffing Shortages They Say Pose Risks to Patient Safety

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Patient checked by nurse as he recuperates from open-heart surgery.
In this July 16, 2019 photo provided by the VA Eastern Colorado Health Care System as patient is checked by nurse Renee Whitley as he recuperates from open-heart surgery at the Rocky Mountain Regional VA Medical Center in Aurora, Colo. (Shawn Fury/VA Eastern Colorado Health Care System via AP)

Department of Veterans Affairs nurses in four cities planned protests this week over conditions they say have led to staffing shortages and mandatory overtime that could potentially risk patient safety.

Members of National Nurses United, which represents more than 12,000 VA nurses, rallied at the Brooklyn VA Medical Center Wednesday in New York and planned protests Thursday at the Atlanta; Albany, Georgia; and Tuscaloosa, Alabama, VA hospitals.

They want VA Secretary Denis McDonough to sign a nursing contract that has been sitting amid stalled negotiations and address staffing problems. The nurses are also demanding improvements to working conditions.

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In Brooklyn, the nurses raised concerns that the potential rise in new patients following approval of the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics, or PACT Act, which has extended medical coverage to up to 1 million additional veterans, could overwhelm nurses, leading to veterans not getting the care they need.

"Just as we must have the appropriate number of military personnel to carry out a mission, so we must have the appropriate number of nurses to care for our sick," retired Navy Capt. Ann Marie Carlin, a registered nurse and NNU union member, said in a prepared statement. "We must bolster our ranks by improving our working conditions, finalizing our contract, and allowing schedule flexibility in order to recruit and retain experienced nurses."

A VA Office of Inspector General review released last month found that the department has staffing shortages in 90 occupations, with the largest shortfalls in the practical nurse and medical officer fields. Such shortages, the review noted, have existed since 2014.

In fiscal year 2022, 62% of all VA facilities reported having a nursing shortage, according to the report.

Terrence Hayes, the VA’s top spokesman, said Wednesday that one of the department's top priorities is recruiting, hiring and keeping nurses on staff, with the agency increasing bonuses and retention incentives.

The department also supported passage of the PACT Act as well as legislation signed in March, the Raise Act, that gave VA the ability to increase pay caps for some employees, including nurses, Hayes said.

"We at VA are so grateful for the work that VA nurses do to deliver world-class healthcare to veterans,” Hayes said in an email to Military.com. “This has been particularly critical during the pandemic, when nurses across the country have risked their own lives to save and improve the lives of veterans."

A 2021 study by the University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences found that the U.S. is in a nationwide nursing shortage that is expected to last until at least 2030. The study said that demand is rising at the same time that a large segment of registered nurses are reaching retirement age.

Stress of the job, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the loss of nursing instructors to retirement also is contributing to the issue, according to the report.

But National Nurses United has taken issue with that report, saying the U.S. does not have a shortage of trained nurses, and instead, nurses are leaving their jobs as a result of working in unsafe conditions created by the hospital industry.

"By deliberately refusing to staff our nation's hospital units with enough nurses to safely and optimally care for patients, the hospital industry has driven nurses away from direct patient care," NNU leaders wrote in a press release issued last year after the University of St. Augustine report was published.

Nurses in Alabama and Georgia who planned to protest agreed, saying conditions that included mandatory overtime and deteriorating facilities were responsible for what they described as a revolving door of nurses.

"We are calling on ... leadership to stop overwhelming nurses with more patients than nurses believe to be safe, to address the chronic short staffing and to encourage VA Secretary Denis McDonough to sign the nurses master contract," said Candice Oduyela, a registered nurse at the Atlanta VA Medical Center in a press release.

At the start of the pandemic, NNU nurses protested at VA medical centers about staffing shortages and the lack of personal protective equipment for health care workers at the facilities.

A month into the pandemic, VA nurses said they worked overtime and took on additional patients while not having enough masks and face shields to do their jobs safely.

At the time, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said the department had not put anyone at risk and denied any VA hospitals had run out of supplies.

"We've got 400,000 employees and someone says, 'I can't change into protective gear three times a day' ... I can tell you that in the emergency rooms and on the COVID wards, we are providing all those with [personal protective equipment]," Wilkie said in the interview with Military.com in April 2020.

Ten days later, Dr. Richard Stone, then the executive in charge of the Veterans Health Administration, said some hospitals had been forced to move to “austerity levels” for protective gear.

“I had 5 million masks incoming that disappeared,” Stone told the Washington Post.

– Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime

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