WASHINGTON – Staff shortages and the worry of possible budget cuts prompted local managers at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Spokane to ignore the chain of command and take their concerns straight to U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, who put pointed questions to senior officials during a Wednesday hearing.
The problems of treating veterans returning from 13 years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq are vexing VA hospitals and staff, as suicides, violent outbursts and other war-related medical problems mount.
Murray said staff at Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center in Spokane say they need help securing sufficient money and personnel to treat growing numbers of patients.
Administrators from the Department of Veterans Affairs, along with those at the regional VA Northwest Health Network, said they’re unaware of any issues.
The disconnect put Murray and the senior officials at odds.
Dr. Robert Petzel, VA undersecretary for health, said no concerns were raised from staff in Spokane when the draft budget was distributed in October and that it was a consensus among officials that the Spokane VA had enough funding.
Petzel also expressed skepticism of Murray’s claim, saying the assessment given by the Spokane VA to Murray’s staff was likely of a few employees as opposed to the senior leadership of the medical center.
In an interview after the hearing, Murray said she’s concerned with the current situation at the medical center.
“We have to be on top of this,” Murray said. “I expect answers back from the VA on this and expect them to be funded adequately.”
President Barack Obama’s proposed budget for 2015 includes a 6.5 percent increase to the VA budget, but a spokesperson for Mann-Grandstaff did not know how much of that increase would go toward the medical center.
In an email late Wednesday, Spokane Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers agreed with Murray’s concerns and said she’ll bring the issue up again when she meets privately with VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.
The Spokane VA served 28,455 veterans in 2012 with a $158.7 million budget, according to the most recent data available.
Megan Crowley, spokeswoman for the health network that oversees the Spokane hospital, said conversations between regional officials and local VA hospitals happen all the time.
Crowley said she was unaware if the concerns raised by Murray and Spokane officials were ever brought up during budget talks.
Based on the testimony during a Senate Veterans Affairs Committee meeting on Wednesday, it was clear those concerns had not yet been addressed.