Veterans Affairs nurses keep up the fight for patient safety

Submitted by ADonahue on
Three nurses outside smiling holding signs calling for safe staffing and workplace violence prevention

RNs in Atlanta, Augusta, Aurora, North Chicago, and Cincinnati speak out

Staff report

National Nurse magazine - Oct | Nov | Dec 2023 Issue

Veterans Affairs nurses have been speaking out about patient safety and the nurse staffing crisis throughout the VA, holding pickets, rallies, and other actions. According to a 2023 report by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), 92 percent of VA facilities reported severe understaffing of nurses. In addition, the VA’s own research stated that the vacancy rates will drastically increase over the next five years. Many VA nurses across the country say the solution to the VA’s nurse staffing crisis is flexible scheduling.

At a picket in June, Cincinnati VA Medical Center RNs protested the administration’s refusal to address RNs’ deep concerns about the VA’s dangerous plan to put high-level ICU and progressive care unit (PCU) patients on medical-surgical units, contrary to the VA’s own policy. In addition, the hospital’s leadership is reneging on its promise to improve retention by providing RNs with flexible work schedules. 

“Our veterans will become collateral damage as a result of our leadership's reckless and injudicious decisions to implement new policies that jeopardize the safety of our patients and place RNs' licenses at risk,” said Shana Rivera, ICU nurse at the Cincinnati VA. “This is irresponsible. Critical drips do not belong on a medical-surgical unit. This is not safe for patients nor the RNs’ license.”

Nurses at the Lovell Federal Health Care Center in North Chicago picketed in September to make the public aware of management’s refusal to implement flexible work schedules, which they have been urging the VA to implement for years. At Lovell FHCC, the vacancy rate has increased from 4.5 percent in 2022 to 13.9 percent in 2023.

“We know that we are facing a staffing crisis as Lovell FHCC VA’s vacancy rate has increased more than 9 percent in the last year,” said Monica Coleman, RN in the Office of Community Care at Lovell FHCC. “VA Undersecretary Shereef Elnahal said that the evidence shows that flexible schedules attract new nurses and retain highly skilled nurses.”

Nurses on picket line holding National Nurses United banner

RNs at the Rocky Mountain Regional VA Medical Center in Aurora, Colo. held a rally in July to demand that management address the epidemic of violence at the facility and take meaningful steps to prevent workplace violence and provide a safe workplace for health care professionals and a safe place of healing for veterans.

“Nurses are being assaulted, kicked, spit at, hit, and threatened on a daily basis,” said Ricardo Ortega, RN and the NNOC/NNU associate director at Rocky Mountain Regional VA Medical Center. “We have brought up these issues to management but instead of addressing them, they are coming after those of us who are speaking out to demand a safe workplace.”

VA nurses working at the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center in Augusta held a rally in early September to highlight urgent issues at their facility, such as the 25 percent nurse vacancy rate, executive management's lack of respect towards RNs, work-life imbalance for nurses who are stretched beyond the limit, and patient safety risks — all of which are driving nurses away.

“There continues to be severe short staffing at our facility, and we’re worried about what it means for our patients,” said Irma Westmoreland, RN and NNU Augusta Area Director. “Nurses are leaving because of unsafe staffing, lack of real respect by top management, and because this VA still hasn’t implemented flexible scheduling.”

RNs at the Atlanta VA Medical Center and the Atlanta VA Health System and members of National Nurses Organizing Committee/National Nurses United (NNOC/NNU) held a candlelight vigil in September to protest the ongoing nursing crisis in their facilities. The nurses said VA executive management has created tragic conditions in their facilities through disrespecting the nursing staff, stretching nurses to the limit, and endangering patient safety with ongoing short-staffing. The nurses fear patients suffering more due to the conditions, and hope their vigil will be a reminder for management of what’s at stake: the lives of their patients.

“The shortcomings of the Atlanta VA system fall directly on executive management, who do not listen to nurses when we tell them what support we need to recruit and retain seasoned nursing staffing,” said Dana Horton, RN and NNU Atlanta Area Director. “It’s as if they don’t care that seasoned and well-trained VA nurses have left and will continue to leave.”