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Senators blast Biden administration’s staffing plans for veterans’ healthcare

CNN —
The top two senators on the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs called the Biden administration’s plan to reduce veterans’ health care staffing a “mess” that could undercut the timing and quality of care.
In a letter sent to Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis McDonough Monday, Sen. Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat, and Sen. Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican, demanded to know why the VA has paused hiring and planned to cut 10,000 full-time jobs despite veterans across the nation experiencing long wait times for care.
Their letter, obtained by CNN, called VA’s apparent “zero growth” policy a “drastic” and “shortsighted” decision. Though the VA told the committee that critical staff and some others would be exempt, Tester and Moran wrote that has not been the case.
The letter, which noted that the VA last year underwent a hiring spree and had a record number of clinical appointments, stated that congressional staff has heard from VA employees and others that various VA locations have rescinded job offers for mental health providers and stalled hiring of housing case managers, among other issues.
“They’re cutting front-line people who see patients in the clinic,” a VA employee with knowledge of the situation who was not authorized to speak and feared retaliation told CNN. “They refuse to put things in writing. … We have no idea why they are making this move.”
The VA Under Secretary for Health, Dr. Shereef Elnahal, responding to a question about staffing decisions at a news conference last month, said the VA’s workforce could be cut by 10,000 positions through “attrition and voluntary separation.” He added those cuts would primarily involve positions that “are not directly veteran facing.”
Dr. Shereef Elnahal, VA Under Secretary for Health, left, with Rep. Jason Crow, right, speaks during a press conference outside of Building A of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs at 1700 North Wheeling St in Aurora, Colorado on March 4. Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post/Getty Images
“So, we’re talking about more managerial, programmatic individuals, supervisory roles that aren’t necessarily over the point of care directly,” Elnahal said. “And so, we think we have the room to do that.”
Asked about the senators’ letter, VA press secretary Terrence Hayes said in a statement that the VA continues to hire in key areas including mental health care, that there will be “no hiring freeze or layoffs” and that the agency “has the nationwide staffing we need to deliver world-class care.”
But the senators’ letter stated that some veterans across the US continue to face long waits for care and that VA’s own metrics show a pattern of “meaningful decline” in average wait times for appointments, including primary, specialty and mental health care.
“It is unclear how VA’s ‘zero growth’ strategy comports with this reality,” wrote the senators, who expressed concern “that such a significant shift in policy could not only have long-term impacts on the Department’s ability to deliver timely, high-quality care but also negatively impact its ability to recruit and retain health care professionals.”
Hayes, the VA spokesperson, disputed that, saying average wait times are either stable or trending down for VA services nationwide.
Asked about staffing issues at a congressional hearing last week, McDonough said the federal budget has forced “difficult choices,” though he said the VA is “well positioned to provide care.”
The VA has been touting in recent news releases greater access to care for veterans through night and weekend clinics as well as “historic enrollment” in VA healthcare driven by the PACT Act, which President Joe Biden signed into law in 2022 and which expanded health care benefits for veterans exposed to toxic burn pits.
The VA has long been plagued by delays in health care. A decade ago, the Obama administration’s then-VA secretary, Eric Shinseki, resigned following revelations of sometimes deadly delays for veterans waiting for care at VA facilities.

web-intern@dakdan.com

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