VA Nurse Shortage Strains Caregivers and Threatens to Worsen Staffing Issues

The Veterans Affairs hospital in Manhattan remains open, after the federal government changed course and decided to keep the medical center operational.

Although the Margaret Cochran Corbin VA Campus on East 23rd Street at First Avenue is up and running, there’s still uncertainty about its future. A high turnover rate among nurses, many of whom retired or sought different jobs during the pandemic, highlights the staffing issues. The remaining nurses are demanding more support and better working conditions before patient care is diminished by a reduced and overwhelmed staff.

“We’ve had retirements, we’re a skeleton group” said Ketsia Glemaud, a nurse at the Manhattan VA Mental Health Outpatient Clinic. “I just try to do the best that I can every single day.”

Tensions at the hospital came to the forefront in January when nurses held a rally on the grounds to demand more recruitment. Their outcry reflects a national trend. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, 91% of VA facilities reported severe nurse shortages in fiscal year 2022.

The nurses’ dissatisfaction comes at a time when the VA New York Harbor Healthcare System – which operates the city’s veterans’ hospitals — is poised for a surge in new patients.

The PACT Act, a recent piece of legislation that expands healthcare to veterans exposed to burn pits and other toxic substances may qualify several million patients for care in the coming years.

James Young, an infection control nurse who has worked at the Brooklyn VA for a decade, said his unit has been short-staffed for two or three years. With a coworker out sick, he is currently the only infection control nurse on the Brooklyn campus.

“If something goes wrong, I’m it,” Young said. “That’s definitely something I have to weigh on my mind when I come into work every day.”

In addition, the staff remains on alert status because of the continuing threat of COVID-19, he said.

VA New York Harbor facilities have several vacancies in infection control, according to Young.

Nurses said that while both the Manhattan and Brooklyn hospitals have added staff since the January rally, there is a need to change the hiring process, which can take months, causing applicants to look elsewhere for employment.

The New York State Board of Nursing issued over 30,000 professional nursing licenses in 2022, according to the New York State Education Department. VA nurses emphasized that the challenge is not a shortage of registered nurses, but hiring and retaining them.

“The hiring process needs to be streamlined,” Tracey Thomas-Treadwell, a bedside nurse at the Manhattan VA, said. “It’s very drawn out.”

Nurses tend to stay with a hospital when they have a supportive environment, an effective manager, and a sense of workforce cohesion, said Christine Kovner, a professor emerita at NYU Rory Meyers College of Nursing who conducts research on the profession.

A common misconception about turnover is that nurses are leaving the industry, Kovner said. But often they are moving to a different hospital for a higher salary, better working conditions or a less stressful environment, she said.

Thomas-Treadwell’s concerns center around having enough hands on deck. “When I leave work, I want to go home feeling like I’ve done my best, but sometimes it’s really hard to feel that way when you don’t have the staffing that you need to provide the care that you want to provide,” she said. “At the end of the day, how are my patients feeling? How are their family members feeling? You don’t have time to talk to them on the phone. It’s hard.”

Many of the nurses in the VA New York Harbor system are represented by National Nurses United, a union that is advocating to reduce the number of hours nurses work each week.

Their contract mandates three 12-hour shifts and one eight-hour shift per week, but the union is pushing to eliminate the eight-hour work period. The reduced schedule has been adopted by some VA hospitals across the country, but nurses and union representatives say that hospital directors have resisted the change in Manhattan and Brooklyn.

“They keep coming up with reasons why we can’t do it,” Young said.

According to a statement from a hospital spokesperson, “challenging the national nursing shortage is a top priority for VA New York Harbor.” The VA administration hosted two nursing job fairs this year, resulting in 72 new nurse hires, and approved a special salary increase for nursing assistants and licensed practical nurses, the spokesperson said.

“Everyone who worked in health care in New York during COVID experienced stress,” the spokesperson said. “Following this experience—and based on the results of our All-Employee Survey—we made it a priority to listen to our staff and developed programs based on their suggestions.”

A year ago, the VA hospitals in Manhattan and Brooklyn were on the verge of closing.

A 2022 market analysis from the Department of Veterans Affairs recommended shutting both facilities due to veterans moving out of the city and lowering demand. The proposed solution was to absorb certain VA medical services into existing community health providers and university hospitals.

Sen. Chuck Schumer helped lead a campaign to fight the closures, and the proposal died in the Senate.

“We’re hoping that we never come to that because the vets have specific specialized needs that the VA provides,” said Glemaud, the nurse at the Manhattan VA Mental Health Outpatient Clinic. “I just try to make it work. We all try to make it work.”

About the author(s)

Katie Moody, originally from Maine, is a graduate student at Columbia Journalism School.