Senators wary of VA plans to trim employee numbers

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Senators worried about cutbacks in U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs employee levels are asking appropriators to include safeguards against inadequate staffing in their plans for the department’s budget next fiscal year.

In a letter to the Senate Appropriations Committee’s leaders on VA issues, a bipartisan group of 17 senators — led by Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and Angus King, I-Maine — asked for language in the upcoming budget measure that would require details on planned reductions in staffing and how that could impact service at department medical centers.

“Inconsistent staffing patterns put veterans’ healthcare quality and accessibility at risk and redirect employees’ attention from their defined job responsibilities to compensate for employment shortages,” the senators wrote.

Their concerns stem from plans announced by VA earlier this spring to trim department employee levels by 10,000 individuals next fiscal year, mostly from medical posts.

VA Secretary Denis McDonough has said repeatedly that the cuts will come from attrition — not layoffs — and should not have any impact on veterans’ medical care.

“That’s not much different than traditional attrition,” he told members of the Senate Appropriations Committee last week during a hearing on VA’s fiscal 2025 budget request. “However, because our retention is so high, and because [Congress] has been so generous to us with various pay enhancements, we have historically high retention, historically low quit rates.”

The cuts would represent about 2% of the total VA employee count of more than 458,000, which is the largest total in department history. VA has seen significant additions in staffing in recent years, adding more than 82,000 workers to the payroll since 2019.

But lawmakers said they need more details in VA leadership’s plans to draw down their employee end strength before supporting the move. They’re requesting specifics on “roles delineated by facility, office, and position” as well as overall evaluations about the impact of a smaller workforce.

“Veterans across the country deserve better care and should not be subject to continuous appointment delays or lower-quality care due to these administrative issues,” the senators wrote.

Senate appropriators are expected to craft their plans for VA funding over the next few weeks, with the goal of final passage before the end of the current fiscal year on Oct. 1. The White House has requested $369.3 billion in funding for the department in fiscal year 2025, an increase of nearly 13% over current levels.

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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