Union, VA leaders spar over potential job cuts

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

By Steve Huffman
Two national union leaders visiting Salisbury Wednesday warned that planned changes to the Hefner VA Medical Center could cost 1,000 jobs ó an assertion denied by a spokeswoman for the medical center.
“It won’t be like a plant closing, it’ll be more like a constant whacking away,” said J. David Cox, national secretary-treasurer for the American Federation of Government Employees.
He admitted the predicted loss of jobs was a “very speculative number.”
Carol Waters, pubic affairs officer for the VA Medical Center, said the planned changes won’t result in any job cuts.
“That’s not true,” Waters said when told the huge job losses that Cox predicted. “It’s unfair to our veterans and our staff to upset them by saying that.”
Cox spoke to AFGE members during a luncheon at the VA. Also speaking was John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO.
The pair had spoken earlier in the day to a smaller group of union workers during a round-table discussion at Salisbury’s Farmhouse Restaurant.
Both Cox and Sweeney said the job cuts will be devastating to veterans served by the VA, as well as the Rowan County economy.
VA administrators announced last month that the hospital will be making a transition away from inpatient, emergency and surgical services to a long-term and mental-health facility for veterans.
The news has been received with much criticism by both veterans and VA employees.
“What’s happening here is outrageous,” Sweeney said. “It’s an insult to the courageous veterans who have done so much for our country.”
Sweeney said the AFL-CIO includes 10.5 million members, which includes members of the AFGE.
He said the shifts planned for the VA are “part of an effort to privatize everything.
“They want to do with health care what they did for the financial industry,” Sweeney said. “You see where that’s led us.”
He said the moves at the VA will push more veterans to privatized hospitals that are already overcrowded. Sweeney said doing so would saddle veterans with out-of-pocket co-pays and force them into long lines in emergency rooms.
“We’re not going to stand by silently,” Sweeney said. “We’re going to win this battle and we’re going to win it soon.”
At Wednesday’s VA luncheon, union workers distributed form letters they asked members to sign and send to congressmen Howard Coble, Robin Hayes and Mel Watt, who represent the area.
“I urge you to immediately contact VA Secretary James Peake and urge him to reverse the decision to contract out acute care services at the W.G. “Bill” Hefner VAMC in Salisbury,” the letters concluded.
Cox said while the VA has denied that jobs will be cut, it was important to look for “code words” in a Health-Care Center Facility Leasing Program document released by the VA.
He said jobs will be lost throughout the VA, both in Salisbury and at other VA centers across the country. Attrition will take care of some, Cox said, with employees not replaced when they quit.
Other jobs will be out-sourced to private companies where workers can be hired at pay rates far lower than what union members make.
“Is all this going to happen overnight?” Cox asked. “No, but it will happen.”
No, Waters countered, it won’t.
She said some workers may change jobs through the planned changes, but denied that cuts are forthcoming. Waters said between $60 million and $100 million in improvements are planned for the local VA.
“Our center is going to grow in staff and service,” Waters said. “We have an incredible potential to be a model for the country.”
She admitted that not all involved with the forthcoming changes is known, and VA administrators are still learning.
She said that in 1996, the number of patients treated through the VA was 24,896. This year, that number is expected to exceed 65,000.
“That’s incredible growth,” Waters said. “We’ve got so many great changes. It’s a shame that these people don’t look at the glass as half-full. The potential is over-running.”
Essie Hogue, president of the local chapter of the AFGE, said about 1,600 workers are employed at the local VA and its outpatient clinics in Charlotte and Winston-Salem.
“We are in the fight of our lives,” Hogue warned her fellow union members.
Alma Lee, president of the National VA Council, said much the same. She referred to the planned changes as “the latest attempt to dismantle the VA as you know it.
“This is part of the national plan by the VA to radically alter how veterans receive care by the VA,” Lee said.
She said “smoke and mirrors are being used to dismantle your VA.”