Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie speaks during a coronavirus task force briefing at the White House on Sunday.

Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie speaks during a coronavirus task force briefing at the White House on Sunday. Patrick Semansky/AP

VA Looks to Boost Hiring to Confront Coronavirus as Employees Decry Shortfalls

Medical staff only able to provide "subpar care" to patients under current circumstances, one nurse says.

The Veterans Affairs Department is looking to fill a wide swath of positions at its facilities across the country as it deals with a rapidly escalating novel coronavirus crisis and a workforce sounding the alarm on shortages. 

As VA is handling nearly 3,000 cases across its nationwide network, the department is hiring for dozens of positions at its 1,300 facilities. Many of the jobs are temporary, lasting only several months or a year. Many are also non-location specific, with the postings stating the facility is negotiable upon receiving an offer. 

VA is likely to face challenges in hiring health care professionals, as public and private sector facilities throughout the country are struggling to provide adequate care due to the coronavirus crisis. VA employees are speaking out on the shortfalls. On Monday, nurses in Brooklyn, New York, held a media availability between their shifts outside the medical center there to denounce the conditions in which they are working. Nurses are currently seeing up to five COVID-19 positive patients each, far exceeding the normal one-to-two intensive care unit patients they would typically see.

“We are only able to provide the very basic level of care and it’s just subpar care to the patients with a five-to-one ratio,” Maria Lobifaro, a registered nurse at the Brooklyn facility’s ICU, said on Monday. “We are already working under such terrible conditions, dangerous conditions. There has to be a time when we say enough is enough. We need more RNs now.” 

Corey Lanham, the VA division director for National Nurses United, called the situation in Brooklyn an "absolute travesty." He noted that patients depend on nurses to bathe them, assess their condition, ensure they have adequate oxygen to survive and provide medication.

VA employees have also bemoaned a lack of adequate personal protective equipment such as masks, noting some facilities have fulfilled needs while others are still falling woefully short. A recent inspector general report found 60% of VA medical facilities lacked the proper supplies and equipment to protect employees and patients. More than 500 employees have so far contracted the virus. 

“If Secretary [Robert] Wilkie and the VA administration fail to provide the necessary staffing and personal protective equipment to the Brooklyn VA, and to other VA facilities around the country, we fear will see unnecessary deaths of both veterans and civilian patients, as well as our registered nurses and other health care workers,” Lanham said. 

Christina Noel, a VA spokeswoman, pushed back on the nurses’ claims. 

“All VA employees have the appropriate personal protective equipment, as per CDC guidelines,” Noel said, adding that included surgical masks, N95 respirator masks and other equipment. 

As of Tuesday, 1,007 VA employees have tested positive for COVID-19.

A National Federation of Federal Employees local representing VA employees at a facility in East Orange, New Jersey, similarly raised concerns last week. Employees there said they were lacking masks, gloves and sanitation stations. Twenty-six staffers have tested positive at the East Orange facility, in addition to 111 employees at medical centers in the New York City area.  

“We appreciate that this pandemic presents a unique set of challenges for this VA and hospitals throughout the country, but our members, who are bravely fighting to protect and care for our veterans, cannot continue to put their lives at risk without even the most basic safety precautions,” the union's executive board said. “If the East Orange VA leadership continues to refuse to listen to and protect its employees, we fear the outcome will be disastrous at this facility and the greater community.”

In addition to hiring, the employee groups are pushing for more reinforcements from within the VA ranks. The department has already begun temporarily transferring employees to locations most in need, though the groups are calling for additional triaging. They also want to see more employees in other specialties trained up on intensive care, which they said is already happening but with insufficient preparation and instruction for the workers. 

VA also maintains a Travel Nurse Corps, who receive short-term assignments at VA medical centers throughout the country. The department currently has postings at 162 facilities around the country and also received permission from the Office of Personnel Management to quickly rehire recently retired health care workers.

“On behalf of all the veterans we serve, VA is inviting health care workers to consider joining VA during this crucial time,” Noel said. “These hiring actions will help bolster VA facilities’ medical staff during the COVID-19 pandemic.” 

The department has long struggled with vacancies and currently has 49,000 unfilled positions, most of which stem from Veterans Health Administration openings. VA is currently hiring for the following positions, among others, to work on issues related to its COVID-19 response. 

  • Registered Nurse
  • Licensed Practical Nurse
  • Nurse Practitioner
  • Nursing Assistant
  • Physician Assistant 
  • Intermediate Care Technician 
  • Advanced Medical Support Assistant COVID-19
  • Pharmacy Technician 
  • Clinical Pharmacist
  • Supply Technician
  • Physicians - hospitalist, anesthesiologist, infectious disease, occupational health, pathologist, palliative care, pulmonologist, primary care, critical care, emergency medicine, psychologist 
  • Housekeeping Aid
  • Food Service Worker
  • Emergency Management Specialist 
  • Human Resources Specialist
  • Chaplain