WASHINGTON, DC - The nation's largest organization of registered nurses, which also represents thousands of Veterans Affairs RNs, today called for substantial increases in funding at VA hospitals to ensure that veterans get the care they need - and offered qualified support for a proposal announced last week by Senators Bernie Sanders and John McCain to address the much discussed problems at VA facilities.
National Nurses United (NNU) also urged management reforms for the VA and a measure to ensure that nurses are empowered to advocate for quality care for patients. NNU said it opposes proposals that might decrease the quality of care by allowing VA funds to be used at private health care corporations.
"Nurses are horrified by the creation of secret waiting lists at VA facilities, and even more importantly, the delays in treatment and care that those lists hid. Actions like these that put our nation's veterans in danger when they need care are inexcusable and should be dealt with severely," said Deborah Burger, RN, co-president of National Nurses United, which represents 185,000 RNs, including more than 9,000 who work at 22 Veterans Affairs facilities.
"The inexcusable waiting lists are symptoms of deeper problems," said Irma Westmoreland, RN, chair of Veterans Affairs for National Nurses United and a registered nurse at the Augusta, Georgia VA Medical Center. "The VA is suffering from a tragic lack of resources that leads to delays in care, it spends resources in ways that do not benefit veterans, and it does not sufficiently empower front line caregivers to act as patient advocates."
NNU said it is encouraged by reports that Sens. Sanders and McCain are working on legislation to strike at some of the VA system's problems and sent a letter today to senators urging them to ensure that the VA gets adequate funding and that the funding goes for important patient needs including hiring frontline caregivers.
At the same time, NNU said it opposes any efforts to weaken the VA system by diverting already inadequate VA funds to go to private health care corporations to provide care.
"Nurses know that the unique healthcare needs of veterans are best met through the VA system, and we join veterans in expressing opposition to the notion of allowing VA funds to go to private health care corporations," said Westmoreland. "Measures which would privatize care would undermine the VA system to the detriment of veterans."
Burger criticized policy makers who have shortchanged funding for veterans care after sharply escalating the need for care for veterans through two major wars. "While Congress has spent billions on wars and conflicts over the past few years, not enough has been spent to care for service members returning from them," said Burger.
"Our nation cannot send our troops into harm's way without a full commitment to helping our returning injured service members," Burger said. "That means that the real solution to the backlog at the VA is both to wage fewer wars and provide adequate funding for the staff, facilities, equipment and materials to ensure that veterans get the care they need."
Additionally, Westmoreland noted, "Congress has not funded the VA adequately to cope with the increasing demands of care for the older generations of World War II, Korea and Vietnam veterans, or to deal with the epidemic of suicides and military sexual trauma (MST) among service members."
NNU also urged senators to include provisions in the bill to ensure that RNs are fully empowered to be patient advocates so that they can act to protect veteran patients. Section 7422 of title 38 of the U.S. code limits the rights of VA professionals in collective bargaining, and the exemptions have been unduly broadened by unfair executive branch interpretations over time, leaving workers with few meaningful collective bargaining rights.
"Nurses need full collective bargaining rights in order to fulfill our critical role as advocates for patient needs and care," said Westmoreland.
"As nurses within the VA healthcare system, our duty is to provide high quality care and advocate for the heroic men and women who put themselves and their health at risk defending our nation. That includes speaking up for safe staffing, working to ensure that our patients get the care they need, and being constantly vigilant on their behalf," Westmoreland said.
"Collective bargaining gives us the tools to speak up for our veteran patients and to be effective whistleblowers to prevent future crises and should thus be included in legislation to fix the problems at the VA," Westmoreland said.
Photo: NNU Facebook page.