Hiring freeze hits Central Alabama VA
June 25, 2015
Roby in the News
The Central Alabama Veterans Health Care System has stopped hiring medical support staff, part of an attempt by the national Veterans Affairs health system to deal with a $2.6 billion budget shortfall.
The hiring freeze affects administrative areas such as human resources, police and customer service, but does not include doctors and nurses who provide health care services directly to veterans.
The medical support and compliance portion of the system's budget will be $5 million short for the remaining three-and-a-half months of the fiscal year, according to a bulletin to CAVHCS employees from interim director Robin Jackson and obtained by the Montgomery Advertiser.
That's part of a $15 million shortfall for medical support and compliance staff at VA health care facilities in the Southeast, according to the bulletin. It also affects the director's office, senior staff, the business office, and other administrative duties.
The freeze does not affect staff who help veterans schedule their doctor appointments, according to a spokesman for the VA's Southeast Network.
"The Central Alabama Veterans Health Care System continues to prioritize the hiring of doctors, nurses and other clinical staff to provide the best possible care to the veterans we serve," said Amir Farooqi, a spokesman for the network. "This includes prioritization for the hiring of administrative staff that directly support clinical operations such as clerks and schedulers."
The budget shortfall and hiring freeze startled members of Congress who earlier ordered the VA to reduce wait times for veterans seeking treatment. A nationwide scandal over efforts to fraudulently hide long wait times caused the previous VA secretary, Eric Shinseki, to resign last year.
"There's not a funding problem, there's a gross mismanagement problem," said Rep. Martha Roby, R-Montgomery.
The $2.6 billion shortfall is due in part to increased demand from veterans nationwide, said Sloan Gibson, deputy secretary of the VA.
"As we are improving veterans' access to care across VA, veterans are responding and seeking VA care at higher rates," Gibson told the House Veterans' Affairs Committee Thursday.
More than 51.8 million appointments were completed between June 2014 and April 2015, an increase of 2.7 million over the prior year, Gibson said. And the system has increased staffing levels by 12,179 workers since April 2014. That includes 1,086 additional physicians and 2,724 additional nurses.
To help with the shortfall, the VA is asking Congress for flexibility to take money for a new program that helps veterans seek care outside the VA and shift it back into the VA system.
"Without it, the Veterans Health Administration is at risk of not being able to continue to provide medical care in the community to veterans," according to a VA budget fact sheet.
Roby, a member of the House Appropriations subcommittee that makes decisions on VA spending, said she would oppose reprogramming the agency's budget until officials in Washington get more involved in CAVHCS, which has hospitals in Tuskegee and Montgomery.
"They have proven time and time again they cannot properly manage the funds we've already given them," Roby said. "And now for them to say stop and put a hiring freeze on medical support staff, that is alarming to me."
Roby is drafting legislation that would allow VA officials in Washington to temporarily take over the most troubled VA health systems in the country, and she expects CAVHCS to be first on the list. In addition to long wait times, CAVHCS has had several scandals affecting patient health, such as unread X-rays and falsified medical records. The former CAVHCS director was fired last fall, in part for failing to take timely disciplinary action for employee misconduct.
"The bureaucracy is not fixing itself," Roby said.
Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, criticized the VA for not recognizing the budget shortfall earlier in the fiscal year.
"We are committed to ensuring that VA has the funding it needs to deliver the world class health care our veterans deserve," Miller said. "But VA must do its part to confront and correct its poor budget planning and poor management issues, to hold poor-performing executives and employees accountable, and, perhaps most importantly, to prioritize our veterans' needs over the bureaucracy's wants."