Veter­ans will suf­fer from cuts

Maryland Independent - - Community Forum - Wil­liam Wet­more, Wal­dorf

On Jan. 23, in ac­cor­dance with his prom­ises to shrink the size of the govern­ment through at­tri­tion, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump an­nounced a fed­eral hir­ing freeze. This is red meat to his base, which has fer­vently ar­gued that lim­ited govern­ment is bet­ter, more ef­fec­tive govern­ment. This ad­min­is­tra­tion may be the first to de­liver so lit­er­ally on that idea, with some po­ten­tial cabi­net ap­pointees hav­ing a his­tory of be­ing pub­licly op­posed to the mis­sion of the agen­cies they have been se­lected to run, and now this across-the-board halt to all new and ex­ist­ing govern­ment jobs, ex­empt­ing only na­tional se­cu­rity, pub­lic safety and the mil­i­tary.

Never mind that fed­eral em­ploy­ment is at record lows. Never mind that the last two times a pres­i­dent froze govern­ment hir­ing, it ac­tu­ally ended up cost­ing more money. When I heard of the plan to freeze fed­eral hir­ing, how­ever, all I could think about was how bad this de­ci­sion will be for veter­ans.

Be­fore my time as a govern­ment em­ploy- ee, I bought into the idea that the prob­lem with govern­ment work was peo­ple who didn’t want to work hard, the hard­est I have ever worked was at the VA. Manda­tory over­time, pro­duc­tion quo­tas, hours and hours of con­tin­u­ing ed­u­ca­tion.

My mem­o­ries are of halls filled with racks of fold­ers and less than 200 co-work­ers to process hun­dreds of thou­sands of claims. There sim­ply weren’t enough new work­ers com­ing in to re­place those who left for other jobs, ill­ness or re­tire­ment.

The ar­gu­ment for small govern­ment ig­nores the real need for enough em­ploy­ees to serve the pop­u­la­tion. You can’t serve 21.8 mil­lion veter­ans with 340,000 em­ploy­ees and ex­pect any­thing but long wait times and sub­par ac­cess to care; you can’t starve an agency of re­sources for decades and not ex­pect sig­nif­i­cant prob­lems. No agency should bet­ter un­der­stand what is at stake here: Af­ter dev­as­tat­ing in­ves­tiga­tive re­ports, a 2014 VA in­ter­nal au­dit showed that tens of thou­sands of veter­ans home from war had to wait at least 90 days for med­i­cal care. The VA ac­knowl­edged 23 deaths oc­curred in Phoenix while wait­ing for care. There is sim­ply no way to de­ter­mine if ear­lier care would have saved their lives; there is lit­tle doubt that ear­lier care should have been pro­vided. In 2014, the FBI opened a crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the agency.

Yet as re­cently as 2015, some VA hos­pi­tals were fac­ing staffing short­ages that left as many as half of the crit­i­cal po­si­tions open. Cur­rently, 4,308 jobs are listed as open at the VA. More than 1,100 of those list­ings are for physi­cians; 1,185 are for nurses at var­i­ous lev­els — from li­censed prac­ti­cal nurses to nurse prac­ti­tion­ers. An­other 284 are for po­si­tions that have di­rect con­tact with veter­ans to help them ac­cess ben­e­fits, such as ward clerks. There is no sub­sti­tute for health work­ers putting their hands on a vet­eran. Ul­ti­mately, no tech­nol­ogy re­places hu­man at­ten­tion.

On the ben­e­fits side, there are over a 1,000 po­si­tions re­main­ing to be filled. Shrink the num­ber of em­ploy­ees any fur­ther, and the two-year back­log that is just now be­ing con­quered will cer­tainly re­turn.

And veter­ans won’t just lose out on de­cent ser­vices thanks to this hir­ing freeze; they’ll also lose out on jobs. About one-third of civil­ian fed­eral em­ploy­ees are veter­ans, thanks in part to the preference given to qual­i­fied veter­ans in govern­ment hir­ing, and out-of-work veter­ans will be hit par­tic­u­larly hard by this mea­sure.

The VA isn’t the only agency that will be hit by this freeze. Many agen­cies that di­rectly work with vul­ner­a­ble pop­u­la­tions, in­clud­ing the So­cial Se­cu­rity Ad­min­is­tra­tion, are also woe­fully un­der­staffed. De­spite false claims that the govern­ment work­force has un­der­gone a dra­matic ex­pan­sion, the fed­eral work­force is in­cred­i­bly small rel­a­tive to the ex­pand­ing U.S. pop­u­la­tion. If 2.7 mil­lion em­ploy­ees sounds like a lot, re­mem­ber that the pop­u­la­tion was just shy of 319 mil­lion peo­ple in 2014.

Our cur­rent fed­eral govern­ment staffing lev­els are akin to go­ing to the gro­cery store the day be­fore Thanks­giv­ing and find­ing two reg­is­ters open. That’s why it takes so long for ben­e­fits claims to be pro­cessed, why get­ting a pass­port can take months, why In­ter­nal Rev­enue Ser­vice re­funds are be­ing de­layed un­til mid-Fe­bru­ary — be­cause bud­get cuts were al­ready lim­it­ing staff re­place­ment. De­spite the on­go­ing nar­ra­tive of “lazy/greedy govern­ment work­ers,” the re­al­ity is that any in­dus­try doesn’t func­tion well if it doesn’t have enough peo­ple.

Mean­while, the mantra of smaller govern­ment won’t save tax­pay­ers any money, it won’t make life any eas­ier or im­prove ac­cess to ser­vices. All it will do is make life harder for fed­eral em­ploy­ees and for the pop­u­la­tions they serve — in­clud­ing veter­ans — whose very lives de­pend on func­tional govern­ment.

It’s not smaller govern­ment that Amer­ica needs right now. It’s an ef­fec­tive, com­pas­sion­ate one.

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