Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer on Sunday called for more funding for Veterans Affairs programs in addition to a clear plan to fill vacancies at a department that he believes the Trump Administration is trying to eliminate.
The senator vowed to fight for an additional $750 million in funding for in-house medical services at the Department of Veterans Affairs during federal budget negotiations before its signing by Sept. 30. The new money would bring spending for the department up to $49.9 billion.
“Our veterans should not have to fight a war with the VA after they’ve fought wars oversees and all they want is help — the help they were promised. The help America has always had a tradition of giving,” said Schumer outside the VA Medical Center in Manhattan.
Schumer will have to negotiate the new funding with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Speaker Paul Ryan and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
The push follows a recent report from the Department of Veterans Affairs that showed more than one in 10 department jobs are currently unfilled. In New York, Schumer said the VA has more than 2,000 unfilled positions, including 175 vacancies at the Northport VA Medical Center. VA medical centers in Manhattan and the Bronx have a combined shortage of 913 workers, Schumer noted.
“This is not just clerical workers, as important as they are,” Schumer said. “It’s doctors; it’s nurses; it’s mental health professions; it’s other direct-to-vet caregivers and the VA has no clear plan to fill the vacancies.”
Curt Cashour, a spokesman for the Department of Veterans Affairs, dismissed the idea that staffing shortages have had a detrimental impact on medical service.
“The fact is that every large organization is going to have what appears to be a large number of vacancies due simply to normal retirements and job changes,” Cashour said in a statement. “VA’s number of vacancies is a normal part of doing business, and reflects the department’s historical annual 9 percent turnover rate and a 2-3 percent growth rate.”
John Rowan, the national president of nonprofit the Vietnam Veterans of America, said he fears the administration is keeping staffing low to eventually make the argument for privatizing or otherwise eliminating the department.
“We’re concerned about this becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. So if you cut back on staff, obviously you’re going to create problems with people and wait times,” said Rowan, who served in the Air Force during the Vietnam War. “Then when you have problems with people and wait times, you say, ‘Oh, the VA can’t handle it; we got to give it to the private sector.”
Rowan believed the private sector would ultimately provide subpar care because workers are already overburdened and not as intimately aware of veterans’ health issues.
Schumer pointed to Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s director of the Office of Management and Budget, for leading the charge to privatize the department.
“There are people in the administration led by Mr. Mulvaney, head of OMB, who do the Koch brothers’ bidding and the Koch brothers want to get rid of the whole VA,” Schumer said. “They say they want to privatize it, but they just want the government not to keep its obligation to our veterans, not spend the money our veterans need for health care.”
The Office of Management and Budget did not immediately respond to a request for comment.