San Diego

Nurses for Veterans Affairs Protest Working Conditions

Nurses claim lack of staffing and equipment put patients at risk

Nurses at the Veterans Administration Healthcare System protested outside the VA's La Jolla Hospital Wednesday, over concerns about under-staffing and patient care problems.

The nurses said VA managers ignore or reject nurses concerns about under-staffing and patient care problems.

VA managers deny those allegations.

At the protest, nurses were demanding staffing changes and better equipment, as well as urging administrators to fix other problems they claim put patients at risk.

The nurses, who are represented by the National Nurses United union, said they are often ignored, punished or bullied when they complain about working conditions.

“Instead of fairness, there is favoritism,” said Dante Trinidad, a military veteran and registered nurse at the VA hospital in La Jolla. “Instead of justice there is bullying. Instead of safety, there is lack of staffing, crippling our ability to succeed."

National Nurses United represents more than 700 nurses and skilled care providers at the San Diego VA.

Union leader Erin McLeod said her colleagues have submitted 285 formal complaints about short staffing, missed rest breaks and broken equipment, in the past three years. McLeod told reporters that management frequently rejects those complaints and concerns, which hurts staff morale.

McLeod said a union-sponsored survey revealed 71 percent of nurses at the local VA have considered quitting in the past year due to lack of support from managers, low pay compared to other local hospitals, and lack of professional respect.

"We're tired of being told to wait,” McLeod said. “We're tired of being told they're working on it, or they're looking at it, or they're talking about it. Because nothing ever happens."

Another nurse, Xochitl Stockton, said long waits for emergency care put the oldest and frailest patients at risk of death.

"And we end up with veterans that are even sicker, and now harder to bring back to baseline, and then their morale goes even lower," said Stockton.

But VA administrators, who watched the protest from the sidelines, insist they are listening to nurses concerns, and working hard to improve conditions and patient care.

Carmen Conception, Associate Director for patient care services, said the VA’s own employee surveys show job satisfaction is good among its nursing staff.

She said 32 additional nurses have been hired this year, and turn-over is the lowest it’s been in four years.

Conception also said the VA purchases new equipment to help nurses treat their patients. For example, when nurses complained about a lack of vital sign machines, Conception said new machines “were deployed, not just in the hospital, but out in the clinics. And these decisions are made collaboratively [with the nursing staff].”

Army veteran and VA patient Emmanuel Alvarez, who also watched the protest, said he is impressed with the quality of care, and has never gone unattended in his two months as a patient. He said staffing seems adequate.

"If I call them on the call button, they're quick to respond," Alvarez said.

VA managers said they meet regularly with nurses to hear their concerns and address their problems. But the protesting nurses insisted they need more help, now.

"Sometimes veterans don't get their CAT scans or their MRI in a timely manner,” said union leader McLeod. “Sometimes medications can be given late. It puts veterans and the nurses at risk."

McLeod said Wednesday’s protest was not a bargaining tactic for better wages or shorter work weeks. Unlike civilian hospitals, McLeod said salaries and staffing ratios at VA hospitals are set by the government, and not negotiated by the union.

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