Nurses working for the Department of Veterans Affairs rallied in downtown Washington, D.C., on Thursday to call attention to staff vacancies and what they describe as overwhelming workloads at medical facilities across the country.

A union representing more than 15,000 registered nurses at some two dozen VA facilities, said it’s tracking 66,000 vacancies in the health care system, and blamed the shortages on department spending on outside care, which they claim siphons resources from federal workers.

National Nurses United said that beds have been shut down in VA facilities, and there has been no backfilling of staff who leave in search of better pay or working conditions, creating what some members say is a hiring freeze despite the department’s assurances that there is no nationwide moratorium on recruiting.

“When I have to take my patient to a procedure, off the floor for multiple hours, the other nurses have to pick up the slack” said Justin Wooden, an ICU nurse at James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital in Tampa, Florida, in an interview. “By not having staff, we have to cover other areas that we’re not trained in.”

Nurses at the rally said they expect workforce investments to match the growth VA has experienced in recent years. In 2022, Congress passed the Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act, which significantly expanded VA’s authority to treat veterans exposed to burn pits. The PACT Act marked the largest expansion of veteran care in decades. As of last month, the VA has logged more than 1 million related claims. The VA is also serving more patients overall, charting a 30% increase in enrollments over last year — the most since 2016.

Mental health also remains a top priority for the department, and one that it is hiring for, a department spokesman said.

“VA appreciates our partnership with National Nurses United and will continue to work with them directly to resolve their concerns,” said Press Secretary Terrence Hayes in a statement.

The department maintained that it has the nationwide staffing it needs, and after record hiring in 2023, the agency’s workforce is at its highest point in history. So far this fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, the workforce has grown about 3%.

Over the last three years, VA increased its nursing staff by 14,000 to a total of 122,000.

Still, nurses said on Thursday that they don’t feel staffing is at a comfortable place.

Sharda Fornnarino, an NNU official, veteran and nurse at the Denver VA, said at the rally that the spinal cord injury unit at her facility closed 13 of its 28 beds due to lack of staff. She said 42,000 veterans have such injuries and “rely on the VA for their care.”

In a separate report from the VA inspector general in 2023, 92% of facilities reported shortages for nurses specifically.

Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Minn., said in a letter to Secretary Denis McDonough in April that his local St. Cloud VA was forced to close a unit in its Community Living Center due to a lack of qualified nursing assistants.

“While the VA denies there’s a hiring freeze, nurses live with it everyday and every shift,” said Irma Westmoreland, a nurse at Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center in Augusta, Georgia, and NNU vice president. “VA’s denial of the freeze is at best an unhealthy and dishonest approach to running the nation’s largest healthcare system.”

Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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