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The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has serious staffing shortages that are exacerbated by mandates from Washington, D.C.

Within two weeks of his inauguration in 2017, President Trump ordered a federal hiring freeze that hit VA hard because it had many critical vacancies. VA Secretary David Shulkin later issued a memo listing 166 occupations that local VA facilities could hire without having to jump through additional hoops. However, Peter O’Rourke, VA chief of staff, issued a memo on Feb. 28, 2018, which drastically reduced the number and types of vacancies that VA can fill without Washington, D.C., review, according to a letter Sen. Jon Tester and three other Democrats on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee sent to O’Rourke on Monday.

“In many instances, rather than waiting for this (hiring) process to be complete, potential employees can simply find a more lucrative opportunity to do similar work in the private sector,” the senators wrote. “Unfortunately, your decision to require under-secretary level approval in Washington, D. C., for each individual hire makes VA likely to lose qualified candidates.”

As of Wednesday, dozens of job openings were posted online for VA Montana, including nurses, clerks, technicians, respiratory therapists, pharmacists, primary care physicians, housekeepers and a pulmonologist. VA Montana’s biggest problem is being shorthanded. As more clinics have opened in Montana and more Montana veterans use VA health care, the staff shortages have worsened.

“We have given VA tools over the past 15 months to go out and hire whoever they need,” Tester said. But many vacancies remain.

Tester agrees with the Disabled American Veterans, American Legion and most other veterans service organizations that VA health care should be improved and that private community care should be used to fill gaps. Veterans organizations argue that the 9 million veterans who rely on VA have special needs and worry that funding for veterans will be slashed if they don’t have dedicated health care facilities.

Since the firing of Dr. David Shulkin, VA has an interim secretary selected by the White House from outside the department. Hearings for Trump’s nominee, Dr. Ronnie Jackson, haven’t yet been scheduled in the Senate.

“I am very concerned about VA now,” Tester told The Gazette Tuesday. “This keeps me up at night. Employee morale is at an all-time low. Politics is being inserted like never before.”

Tester worries about VA narrowing the categories of veterans who can receive health services. He’s heard that Washington, D.C., VA leadership is “trying to throw out Priority 7 and 8 veterans” who earn about $32,000 a year.

"Shulkin was pushed out by folks trying to privatize VA,” Tester said. “He was muzzled, undermined and fired by tweet.”

Uncertainty has increased since January, Tester said. At that time, he took Shulkin to task for slowness in implementing new laws designed to expand and expedite veterans care.

“Workforce shortages in Montana have become a crisis,” Tester told Shulkin at a Jan. 17 hearing, noting that VA then had 35,000 vacancies nationwide. The department has 381,000 employees, according to a recent CNBC report, making it second only to the Department of Defense in workforce size.

Tester talked to Jackson the week before Easter and advised him to “get his paperwork in” so the confirmation process can start. “If he’s fit for the job, we gotta get him confirmed and on the job,” Tester said.

Tester said he has two questions for Jackson:

  • Does he have the ability to manage this large department?
  • Where does he stand on privatizing VA?

The uncertainty and political gamesmanship in Washington is directly affecting veterans in Montana and throughout our great nation. As Tester said, “Our veterans deserve better than this.”

The Senate Veterans Affairs Committee has a history of bipartisanship that must continue. The job of heading VA will be tough for even the most qualified new secretary. The first order of business should be staffing and supporting those positions that directly assist veterans. Veterans must come first; VA isn’t the place for pushing political ideology about privatizing or otherwise shrinking government.