Nurses and other health care workers at the Department of Veterans Affairs say its government hospitals are not prepared to resume normal operations as regional plans roll out for reopening facilities and lifting coronavirus safety protocols.
Front-line healthcare workers have bristled at the Trump administration’s push toward getting back to more normal conditions. The pushback occurs as negotiations over employee compensation and benefits have stalled between Veterans Affairs leadership and the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents VA nurses and doctors across the country.
VA’s reopening plan announced Thursday relies on local assessments of “conditions on the ground” before non-emergency medical practices like elective surgeries can resume. Facilities will be required to continue COVID-19 safety measures while assessing ways to fully bring back services.
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“A central planning solution for resuming regular operations makes no sense here because some areas of the country will take longer to recover, while other areas have seen minimal cases,” said VA Secretary Robert Wilkie. “That’s why we’re letting local conditions dictate our next steps.”
VA hospitals across the country have relied on a combination of volunteers and re-assigned hospital workers since they started screening all veterans and visitors in March.
Administrators at the Minneapolis VA Health Care System notified staff of screening reassignments less than a week before department leadership in Washington announced its plan to return to pre-coronavirus work.
The Minneapolis facilities have not been hit as hard as some metropolitan areas like New York and New Jersey. But emergency measures remain in place to handle about 50 current active cases, according to case records.
Barbara Galle, a Minneapolis VA ICU nurse and AFGE regional vice president, was concerned hospital managers were moving too recklessly even as more patients recover.
“They’re already starting and they’re already making huge mistakes,” Galle said. “To reopen and be short staffed when we were short staffed to begin with it creates the potential for error.”
COVID-19 patients at her hospital have been isolated in a special ward. Hospital administrators assigned nurses with intensive care unit training to work as front door screeners which has left nurses like Galle concerned about short staffing.
VA hospital administrators in Minneapolis have added 12 nurses, 7 facility assistants and 21 student trainees in response to COVID-19, according to Public Affairs Officer Brad Doboszenski.
“When it comes to staffing, the Minneapolis VA Health Care System has adequate staff to meet its current and future demand,” Doboszenski said.
Other centers have staffed up as well with the VA waiving certain rules to re-hire retired physicians, nurses, pharmacists and lab technicians more quickly.
Still, government health care workers across the country continue to demand “universal testing,” broad grants of paid leave and hazard pay for those on the front lines.
“Hazard pay is to compensate employees when risks cannot be reasonably mitigated and employees cannot be safely protected, and that is the opposite of the current environment at VA,” said Press Secretary Christina Noel, a top aid in the national office.
The Veterans Health Administration has struggled, along with public and private hospitals across the country, to acquire enough protective equipment for its health centers. VHA chief Richard Stone acknowledged the shortage in an interview with The Washington Post last month.
The country has also faced shortages of materials required for COVID-19 tests with new shipments arriving just in the past week. Federal emergency managers have said there are no plans to ensure everyone in the country can receive a test as they continue to urge caution on the viability of supply chains.
Galle, the nurse and union officer, said hospital staff in Minneapolis who show symptoms can get a test. But VA headquarters has not mandated national testing requirements.