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‘We don’t have enough doctors and nurses,’ say veterans protesting outside Biloxi VA

Curtis Johnson says he has been trying to convince the staff at the Gulf Coast Veterans Health Care Center that he needs a new knee for 14 years. He first injured the knee in basic training in 1976, he said, an injury so severe it ended his military career.

Next week, Johnson said, he’ll pay out of his own pocket for a knee replacement elsewhere.

That’s why he was standing on the side of Pass Road outside the Veterans Administration complex in Biloxi, waving a sign urging passers-by to “Honk if you support our veterans.”

“I’ve been trying to get some care and I can’t,” he said. “That’s why I’m here.”

More than a dozen members of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 1045 walked with Johnson to draw attention to what their leader called a troublesome number of unfilled jobs at the medical center. Angela Poirson, a nurse practitioner at the center and the local president, said the VA wouldn’t give her all the numbers but she has documented about 250 unfilled jobs, 40 of them in behavioral health.

She said she fears Congress is trying to slowly privatize the medical care system by putting money into the Veterans Choice Program that could be spent to fill the 49,000 positions that are open nationwide. Choice gives veterans vouchers to buy care outside the system in certain instances, such as if they have to wait more than 30 days for an appointment.

“They’re essentially trying to dismantle (the system) piece by piece,” she said. “They know if they eliminated it outright there would be a huge uproar.”

Robert Mims, chief of community and public affairs at Gulf Coast Veterans Health Care System, said Poirson’s figures are fairly accurate. There are 285 unfilled positions at the Gulf Coast system, which includes Biloxi, Mobile, Pensacola, Eglin Air Force Base and Panama City.

“Here at the Biloxi VA, we have approximately 75 slots that are vacant,” he said in an email. “Significant work has been done to hire personnel. Over the last year, we have brought on more than 350 new personnel. We have regular job fairs to help in the hiring effort. More than 100 applicants showed up at a nursing job fair we had last weekend.”

He said the Choice program was not the reason for the unfilled positions.

“The Choice program is funded separately from personnel funding,” he wrote. “Each section of the GCVHCS has an organizational chart which is approved annually for funding purposes.”

He said Gulf Coast loses about seven employees every week to retirement and other job changes, transfers and moves.

“That is an average of 200 employees annually,” he said. “Our nursing turnover rate is 3.8 percent, which is down from nearly 14 percent in recent years.”

Terrence Johns, president of the New Orleans local of the union, said he came over to show his support.

“But it’s across the board,” he said. “We’re all understaffed.

“That’s what makes for the long wait times. We don’t have enough doctors and nurses.”

Those who do have jobs are hurt as well, he said.

“They’re working longer hours,” he said. “They’re losing a lot of time with their families.”

Paul Hampton: 228-284-7296, @JPaulHampton

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