FACT CHECK: Does The VA Have Over 30,000 Job Vacancies?
Democratic Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont claimed Sunday that the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has 30,000 job vacancies.
Sanders’ 30,000 figure is in the ballpark. A shortage of medical staff at the VA has contributed to significant gaps in veteran health care.
Ahead of the federal government running out of funding Friday, Sanders discussed problems facing average Americans that he’d urge Republicans to address in the next spending bill. One issue he mentioned was staffing at the VA.
“We have 30,000 vacancies in the Veterans Administration that have not been filled,” Sanders said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “Our job is to take care of the needs of working families and the middle class, not just worry about the 1 percent. So, I believe that, as we talk about the new spending bill, those are the issues we must demand that Republicans address.”
Sanders slightly understated the real number of unfilled positions – the VA currently has over 35,000 vacancies, according to an agency spokesperson. Sanders rounded off the number to 30,000, but he’s in the ballpark.
Most open positions are for medical professionals like doctors and nurses, roles that were important enough to be exempted from the Trump administration’s federal hiring freeze.
The shortage has been a major factor behind the backlog at Veterans Health Administration (VHA) centers across the country. FOX31 reported that a shortage of anesthesiologists, for instance, was causing delays and even cancelations of surgeries at a center in Denver. The Baltimore Sun reported similar issues across Maryland VHA centers, with one center covering 5,000 patients with just three doctors.
The VA has pointed to uncompetitive salaries as one factor behind these vacancies.
“Retaining and recruiting of healthcare providers and prosthetics representatives is difficult due to low salaries,” a recent “State of the VA” fact sheet explained. While biomedical engineers on average make almost $90,000 per year, the Fact Sheet noted that the average salary for the VA’s biomedical engineers is about $65,000.
Observers like Concerned Veterans For America’s Executive Director Dan Caldwell instead pointed TheDCNF to a VA hiring process riddled with “bureaucratic hurdles and procedures” as a more significant factor. VA employees have raised similar complaints about staffing in the past.
The VA argues, however, that it’s not just the agency experiencing staffing shortages. The vacancy rate at the VA currently stands at 9 percent, but a VA spokesperson pointed us to high vacancy rates in the private sector as well.
Studies estimate that the national vacancy rate for registered nurses is 8 percent and nearly 18 percent for hospital physicians. These shortages appear to be characteristic of the health care industry as a whole.
The problem is expected to worsen in the coming years, with the Association Of American Medical Colleges estimating that the U.S. could face a shortage of over 100,000 doctors by 2030.
Caldwell emphasized that simply hiring more staff would not address the full extent of problems that the VA faces.
“It’s a bit of a strawman,” Caldwell said. “The fact is the VA has added over 100,000 jobs in the past 10 years. The vacancy issue is used as a distraction from the fact that the VA is not structurally set up to help the current veteran population.”
Caldwell explained that the VA’s bureaucracy needs structural reforms to efficiently keep up with demographic changes in America’s population of veterans.
“The veteran population is becoming smaller and more dispersed,” Caldwell said. “It’s all about providing choice and flexibility … We have got to better integrate the private sector because they are better suited to respond to these and other changes.”
The VA recently expanded its reliance on private sector health care providers to meet needs it cannot handle. Authorizations under the Veterans Choice Program, a program legislated in 2014 to cover veterans who have trouble accessing timely care, increased over 100 percent in just the six months after October 2015.
The VA has also proposed other reforms to modernize and streamline various VHA programs and processes while expanding health care options for veterans. These reforms include an expanded use of novel technological solutions like video conferencing between physicians and patients.
“Taking care of veterans is a cost of war,” Sanders said in a 2014 Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing. “Period.”
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