Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer on Sunday called for more funding for Veteran Affairs programs and offered a plan to fill vacancies — including 175 at the Northport VA Medical Center — in a department that he believes the Trump Administration is trying to eliminate.
The senator vowed to fight for an additional $750 million in funding for in-house medical services at the Department of Veterans Affairs during the negotiations of the federal budget agreement before its signing by Sept. 30. The new money would bring spending for the department up to $49.9 billion.
“Our veterans should not have to fight a war with the VA after they’ve fought wars overseas and all they want is help — the help they were promised. The help America has always had a tradition of giving,” Schumer said outside the VA Medical Center in Manhattan.
Schumer’s push follows a recent, required report from the Department of Veterans Affairs that showed that more than 45,000 Veterans Affairs jobs — more than one in 10 — are currently unfilled. In New York, Schumer said the VA has more than 2,000 job shortages, including a combined shortage of 913 workers at the VA medical centers in Manhattan and the Bronx, Schumer noted.
“This is not just clerical workers, as important as they are,” Schumer said. “It’s doctors; it’s nurses; it’s mental health professions; it’s other direct-to-vet caregivers and the VA has no clear plan to fill the vacancies.”
Schumer is also seeking to fund building upgrades at the Northport VA in the budget, his office said.
He will have to negotiate the new funding with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Speaker Paul Ryan and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
Curtis Cashour, a spokesman for the Department of Veterans Affairs, dismissed the idea that the staffing shortages have had a detrimental impact on medical service.
“The fact is that every large organization is going to have what appears to be a large number of vacancies due simply to normal retirements and job changes,” Cashour said in a statement. “VA’s number of vacancies is a normal part of doing business, and reflects the department’s historical annual 9 percent turnover rate and a 2-3 percent growth rate.”
The agency attempted to downplay the significance of the shortage when it released the staffing report on Aug. 31.
“Despite a challenging and ultra-competitive market for filling health care positions across the country, VA has worked with Congress and other key stakeholders to deploy a number of new and important tools to help us reduce our vacancies,” said VA Secretary Robert Wilkie in a statement at the time. “We are always looking for new ways to recruit high-quality talent and will continue to do everything we can to provide the best quality care for our nation’s Veterans.”
John Rowan, the national president of the nonprofit Vietnam Veterans of America, said he fears the administration is keeping staffing low to eventually make the argument for privatizing or otherwise eliminating the department.
“We’re concerned about this becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy. So if you cut back on staff, obviously you’re going to create problems with people and wait times,” said Rowan, who served in the Air Force during the Vietnam War. “Then when you have problems with people and wait times, you say, ‘Oh, the VA can’t handle it; we got to give it to the private sector.’ ”
Rowan believed the private sector would ultimately provide subpar care because they are not as intimately aware of veterans’ health issues and that workers in the sector are already overburdened.
Schumer pointed to Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s director of the Office of Management and Budget, for leading the charge to privatize the department.
“There are people in the administration led by Mr. Mulvaney, head of OMB, who do the Koch brothers’ bidding and the Koch brothers want to get rid of the whole VA,” Schumer said. “They say they want to privatize it, but they just want the government not to keep its obligation to our veterans, not spend the money our veterans need for health care.”
The Office of Management and Budget did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
With Rachelle Blidner