The VA’s Nurses Are One Step Closer to Getting a Big Pay Raise
Measure granting the raises passes a House committee, but loses bipartisan support after Republicans seek to block department’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate.
Nurses and physicians assistants at the Veterans Affairs Department could soon see significant pay raises under legislation a House committee approved on Wednesday, which cleared the panel only after a contentious debate on COVID-19 vaccine mandates.
The VA Nurse and Physician Assistant Retention and Income Security Enhancement (RAISE) Act would allow for PAs and advanced practices nurses to earn up to level one of the Executive Schedule and registered nurses to earn up to level two. In 2022, that amounts to $226,300 and $203,700, respectively. Currently, all of those positions are capped at level four, or $176,300. VA Secretary Denis McDonough has endorsed the bill and personally lobbied for its passage, calling the measure a key step to addressing the department’s workforce challenges.
“Banging pots and pans is great,” McDonough said earlier this month of initial efforts during the pandemic to recognize health care workers, “but what these workers really need is someone fighting for them, looking out for them and investing in them and their wages, their development and their growth.”
While the secretary’s efforts helped initially win bipartisan support for the bill, Republicans withdrew their votes at the 11th hour over concerns about VA’s vaccine mandate. A federal court has paused enforcement of the mandate for the vast majority of the federal workforce, but it remains in place for all VA health care employees because its requirement predated President Biden’s governmentwide order. Republican members on the House Veterans' Affairs Committee said if VA is facing challenges recruiting and retaining employees, it should not be threatening to fire those who are non-compliant. Roughly 99% of the VA health care workforce has already gotten the shots or requested a religious or medical exemption.
“If VA staffing challenges are so dire as to require the secretary to personally advocate for passage of the RAISE Act to help VA recruit and retain staff, then VA should not even be considering firing employees for not getting the vaccine,” said Rep. Michael Bost, R-Ill. “VA can’t have it both ways.”
Rep. Mark Takano, the chairman of the committee, blasted the Republican members for chasing a political outcome instead of passing a necessary bill.
“This amendment is a political stunt that injects extreme ideological views onto the very serious work of this committee,” Takano said. “It has no place being directed at a health care organization that serves a population as medically vulnerable as veterans.”
Rep. Lauren Underwood, D-Ill., who introduced the bill, said the pandemic has exacerbated VA’s shortfalls and will allow the department to address vacancies in high-cost and rural areas.
The “need for this bill could not be more urgent," Underwood said. "With record levels of burnout, the situation could get even worse in the coming months.”
The measure was supported by the major veterans service organizations and employee advocacy groups. It ultimately passed 18-10 in a party line vote.