VA hospital in Little Rock hiring to replenish nurse ranks
Two weeks after protesting outside John L. McClellan Memorial Veterans Hospital in Little Rock, nurses at the facility are “cautiously optimistic” about steps being taken to address staffing shortfalls.
As of last week, Central Arkansas Veterans Healthcare System had offered jobs to 36 new nurses, begun the recruitment process with 52 more and started orientation for 13 new nursing staff members.
The hospital initially closed 19 beds because of the nursing shortage, but it soon consolidated patients and staff members on two of the three surgical units, freeing up beds in the other unit and allowing staff members to be “flexed” to that area, hospital spokesman Chris Durney said. The hospital has retained its normal level of services through the struggles, Durney said.
The local chapter of the American Federation of Government Employees still has some concerns, but chapter President Barbara Casanova said in an interview that the union has seen promising signs. Since the protest, for example, the ratio of on-duty nurses to patients has improved, she said.
“The numbers are really good right now,” Casanova said. “Our big fear, though, is that they’ll go back in the toilet when no eyes are watching.”
The central Arkansas Veterans Affairs system’s hiring struggles fit into a larger trend of nursing shortages at other Arkansas hospitals and at VA facilities nationwide.
The VA inspector general found in a 2016 report that the agency was losing nurses at an alarming rate, and recent data indicate that the bulk of the VA’s nearly 50,000 vacancies are for medical staff positions.
U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., questioned VA leaders on Tuesday about the Little Rock staffing shortages during a hearing of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee.
Dr. Tom Lynch, VA assistant deputy undersecretary for health clinical operations, told Boozman that the agency had been focused on central Arkansas.
“Nursing has been a problem for all of health care,” Lynch said. “We have been working aggressively in Little Rock. We have had our chief nursing officer working with the facility to identify staff in nursing to get to the facility.”
Boozman agreed with Lynch that the hiring struggles reached beyond the VA, adding that the VA could have “tremendous influence and be a leader in the direction forward.”
While the Arkansas State Board of Nursing doesn’t track employment data, Executive Director Sue Tedford said the $10,000-$15,000 signing bonuses central Arkansas hospitals are offering indicate a local nursing shortage.
In May, CHI St. Vincent announced a partnership with the University of Arkansas at Little Rock to address the nursing shortage. Chad Aduddell, CHI St. Vincent’s chief executive officer, said at the time that central Arkansas alone had a shortage of 700 nurses, and he expected that number to increase.
Even before the June 26 union demonstration, the central Arkansas VA health system has been working to address the shortage, Durney said. Administrative staff members have attended 10 external recruiting fairs in the past year, and the hospital started a social media campaign in January to attract more help.
Casanova said the nurses decided to protest last month because they thought staffing levels had deteriorated to the point of hurting the quality of patient care.
“The biggest complaint I heard from nurses was ‘I can’t be a nurse because I’m too busy putting out fires,’” Casanova said. She also expressed concerns about nurses being moved from specialty areas to other areas where they lacked competency.
Central Arkansas VA leaders approached the union with an action plan to resolve the complaints, and they have implemented a series of initiatives to improve employee morale, Durney said.
The system hopes to hire 45 new nurses in medical/ surgical positions, offering up to $15,000 in recruiting incentives.
It will implement a “referral and stay” bonus program for experienced medical/surgical and critical-care registered nurses.