Press Release

Registered nurses demand Charlie Norwood VA address veterans’ patient safety concerns and hostile workplace environment

Sign: Support workers who support vets

VA director threatens nurses with arrest, blocks emergency room access with truck barricade, and bullies nurses advocating for patients

Registered nurses and nurse practitioners at the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center (CNVAMC) in Augusta, Ga. are demanding that Veterans Health Administration (VHA) administrators do more to protect the lives of our nation’s veterans by addressing the disrespect and bullying that is creating a hostile work environment and staffing crisis, said National Nurses United (NNU) today.

“It is unfortunate that the administrators at CNVAMC and VA Southeast Network (VISN 7) are not listening to the nurses,” said Irma Westmoreland, RN and NNU-VA director at CNVAMC. “They seem hostile towards dedicated and experienced health care professionals who are advocating for improvements to benefit our veterans, our profession, and the community.”

On Thursday, April 14, nearly 40 CNVAMC nurses took part in a peaceful procession to the offices of the CNVAMC director, Dr. Robin Jackson. Nurses carried two large signs and a 20-foot-long petition scroll listing the names of more than 330 staff nurses at CNVAMC who signed a petition urging the VA to immediately make changes to address their patient safety concerns. Nurses were supported by veterans and a pastor who blessed the group.

CNVAMC management responded in a hostile manner to the procession, threatening nurses with arrest. Half a dozen VA police officers were posted to stop the nurses from proceeding to the director’s office. The administration had also apparently told VA truck drivers to use their vehicles to barricade the Uptown Mental Health Circle entrance. Nurses witnessed at least one ambulance that was unable to maneuver past the barricade, forcing the ambulance staff to carry the patient through the barricade.

“I was a police officer before I became a nurse,” said Roy Smith, a registered nurse at CNVAMC who was deeply disturbed by what he witnessed. “And we were trained in how to create a barricade so nothing could get through, and that’s what that was.”

This latest incident of blatant disregard for patient safety and overt disrespect for nurses follows Dr. Jackson’s refusal to participate in a VA mediation process called an intervention that was requested by the nurses and initiated by the VA central office in Washington, D.C.

Nurses say they have seen more than 85 nurses leave CNVAMC over the past six months and note this is significantly more than the number of RNs who left during the entire year prior. Nurses say the exodus comes as managers are employing bullying tactics in an attempt to silence nurses who are advocating for changes that would benefit patient care, such as an increase in staffing and infection controls. In addition, nurses say, they are being moved to units without proper training or orientation. As a result, CNVAMC has a retention and recruitment crisis.

“Management at Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center appears to be in a mode where their own safety guidelines are out the window,” said Michelle Rodriquez, ICU RN who observed a clinic nurse assigned to an acute-care unit without the support or training required for that unit. “I do not believe that nurse had the required orientation, support, and competency checks that are required when sending a non-acute care nurse to acute care. This is a recipe for disaster. We know the attitude that management appears to be taking that ‘a nurse is a nurse is a nurse’ is a complete falsehood. The nursing profession is highly specialized. We know the best outcomes for our patients happen when they are cared for by nurses with the expertise, experience, and competencies that specifically address each patient’s illness and acuity. Just as you wouldn’t want a podiatrist doing brain surgery, you wouldn’t want an operating room nurse working in an ICU without specialized orientation and training.”

“It is appalling that in a recent ‘fireside chat’ with CNVAMC employees, Dr. Jackson referred to staff as ‘trolls,’” said Westmoreland, RN, who has served at the VA Medical Center for more than 30 years. “When nurses are disrespected, their expertise is dismissed, and they have genuine patient safety concerns, they suffer great moral distress. This distress increases as nurses feel they are unable to provide the highest quality of care they are committed to providing. This distress leads to nurses leaving our medical center. The loss of each one of these experienced nurses is a loss of years of experience and expertise that harms our veterans.”

CNVAMC nurses are calling on Dr. Steven Lieberman, VHA Acting Under Secretary for Health, Dr. David M. Walker, the Network Director for the VA Southeast Network (VISN 7), and Dr. Jackson, the Medical Center Director of the CNVAMC to invest more in quality patient care by engaging with NNU as true partners in service to the veterans.

NNU represents approximately 570 nurses at the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center.

National Nurses United is the largest and fastest-growing union and professional association of registered nurses in the nation with more than 175,000 RNs nationwide.