VA nurses in Atlanta demand fixes for ongoing patient-safety concerns

Nurses plan Thursday protest at VA Medical Center in Decatur

Nurses at the Atlanta VA Health Care System hospital plan to protest their working conditions on Thursday, saying they are plagued by short-staffing and a lack of scheduling flexibility.

VA nurses in Augusta, Atlanta and Tuscaloosa are all simultaneously holding protests against their hospital leaders for failing to address “pressing and persistent problems” in the workplace, according to National Nurses United, a union that represents nurses in the United States.

The nurses are asking leadership to stop overwhelming them with more patients than they can safely care for and to fill open jobs. They are also asking for health care system leaders to encourage the VA Secretary Denis McDonough to sign a stalled master contract with the union.

Melissa Turner, a registered nurse at the Atlanta VA Medical Center and a member of the National Nurses United, said that the medical center is chronically understaffed, leading to inadequate care for veterans.

“We want to be able to take care of our veterans ... but nurses are experiencing more distress and injury,” Turner said. “We have a staffing crisis right now and management is ignoring this.”

Terrence Hayes, the VA’s press secretary, issued a statement Wednesday, saying his agency is grateful “for the work that VA nurses do to deliver world-class health care to veterans. This has been particularly critical during the pandemic when nurses across the country have risked their own lives to save and improve the lives of veterans.”

“One of VA’s top priorities right now is recruiting, hiring, and retaining our great nurses,” Hayes said, adding the VA has advocated for laws that “have given us increased authorities to raise pay caps for VA nurses across the country. We have also maximized bonuses and retention incentives to reward VA nurses for their excellent work and keep them at VA, where they belong.

We will continue to work together with our valued labor partners to provide the best possible work experience for VA’s nurses, so they can deliver the best possible health care to the veterans we serve.”

National Nurses United represents 900 registered nurses in Atlanta, 560 nurses in Augusta, and 185 nurses in Tuscaloosa.

At the same time, a watchdog with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is investigating allegations at the psychiatric unit at the Atlanta VA Medical Center. The unit, which cares for some of VA’s most vulnerable veterans, is allegedly plagued by filth and has disregarded COVID-19 protocols throughout the pandemic.

The investigation was prompted after one of the employees filed a complaint with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel this spring. The special counsel’s office found “a substantial likelihood of wrongdoing” based on the information and referred the matter to the VA secretary’s office for further investigation, according to a July 5 letter by an attorney in the special counsel’s office.

The hospital issued a statement to the AJC confirming that it is conducting its own internal review.

“We welcome all external reviews when assessing ways to improve care for our Veterans,” Smith, the hospital spokesman, wrote in an email statement. “We are committed to addressing any opportunities for improvement.”

The protest is scheduled for 1 p.m. Thursday in front of the Atlanta VA Medical Center in Decatur.

AJC reporter Jeremy Redmon contributed to this report.