Navy veteran Tom Edwards sees plenty of rhetoric about “supporting our troops,” but said the commitment falls short when it comes to staffing the services they need at Veterans Administration medical facilities.
“What’s happening in this country is a travesty,” the retired postal worker said as he marched in front of the VA Medical Center in Minneapolis carrying a sign that read, “No Vet Should Wait in Line.”
Edwards and dozens of other people, including numerous veterans, participated in a rally Wednesday to call on the Department of Veterans Affairs to fully staff VA facilities. It was one of several actions taking place across the country in recent weeks.
The American Federation of Government Employees, the union representing many VA workers, said 49,000 positions are unfilled, based on information announced by Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin in May.
The Minneapolis VA Health Care System is a massive operation that serves tens of thousands of patients at its main medical center and 13 community clinics in Minnesota and western Wisconsin. Some 566 positions are open at the Minneapolis medical center, leading to understaffing and forced overtime, said Jillian Sully, president of AFGE Local 1969.
Many staff “are overworked and burnt out,” she said.
Twenty-nine-year-old Dusten Retcher sees both sides of the issue. An Air Force veteran with a disability, he depends on the medical center for specialty care that he describes as top notch. Retcher also is employed by the VA to process claims and sees the toll that understaffing has taken.
“Some in Congress want to underfund the VA so they can say that government doesn’t work,” he said. “Then they want to turn it over to the private market. That’s one of their tactics.”
Many veterans can’t afford to pursue care through private insurance – nor should they have to, said Army veteran Larry Warren, who also took part in Wednesday’s demonstration.
“They would rather be here with their fellow comrades,” served by staff who understand veterans’ issues, he said.
In addition to veterans and AFGE members, the rally drew representatives of other unions and Congressman Tim Walz, D-Minn.; and state Rep. Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, both announced candidates for governor. They called on the VA to speed up the hiring process to fill the vacancies.
Prior to the rally, the VA released a statement disputing the vacancy number of 49,000 provided by AFGE:
“As of June 30, 2017, the Department of Veterans Affairs had just over 34,000 vacancies total,” the statement read. “VA’s Veterans Health Administration is the largest integrated health care system in the nation, and VHA’s vacancy rate is about 9 percent, less than half the vacancy rate for private sector hospitals, which trend near 20 percent. But we’re always looking for qualified medical professionals to fill positions that meet patient needs.”