Jasen Lee, Deseret News
Charles Talcott, a U.S. Army veteran and employee at the Veterans Medical Center in Salt Lake City, holds a sign along with others supporting increased staffing at the facility on Oct. 16, 2017. The American Federation of Government Employees held a rally to raise awareness about ongoing issues with veterans' care. The group said the facility is short by 476 employees.

SALT LAKE CITY — For the past few years, stories of veterans having to wait for extended periods to receive medical care or mental health care have been all over the news. Some critics have blamed government bureaucracy, while others contend that the U.S. Veterans Health Administration simply doesn't have adequate staffing to serve the men and women in need of care.

On Monday, the American Federation of Government Employees — the largest federal worker union that includes 250,000 at the Department of Veterans Affairs — held a rally outside of the Salt Lake City VA Medical Center to raise awareness about ongoing issues with veterans care.

The union claims that nationwide, the VA has more than 49,000 vacant staff positions at facilities around the country, including hundreds in Utah. These current staffing levels are creating risks to patient safety and a hazardous work environment at the centers, said Clayton McDaniel, local union president.

He said the agency needs to fill its vacancies immediately because the staffing shortages have created a logjam and exceptionally long waits for care.

"Personally, as a vet, I have (to get) an appointment for neurology and they told me it was going to take four months," he said. "We need to fill these positions so we can get people in quicker."

McDaniel said the Salt Lake City VA hospital is understaffed by 476 employees across various departments. The deficiency is contributing significantly to the problem of veterans' prolonged wait for care.

He said Congress has appropriated funding, but administrators have been lax in hiring the manpower necessary to fully staff the agency.

"It just poor management," McDaniel said. "If we had more staff, maybe we could run a lot more effectively."

A number of VA hospital employees joined in the rally, including Charles Talcott, a U.S. Army veteran who works in the mental health unit. He said understaffing is a real issue that needs to be addressed.

"When the job takes nine (people) and there are only seven, the seven have to pick up the work of the other two," he explained. "Everybody here has to work harder than their own job. A lot of people come early and leave late."

He said colleagues frequently work extra hours for no additional pay because they feel obligated to help the veterans.

"I've been guilty of it myself," Talcott admitted. Both McDaniel and Talcott voiced concern that the staffing issue is having a significant impact on care vets are receiving through the VA system.

"If there aren't enough people, it means not enough veterans are being seen," Talcott said. "If we 'staff up,' we can do a better job. We can serve our brothers and sisters better."

Veterans Affairs officials say the vacancy numbers touted by the union are not accurate.

As of Sept. 29, the Department of Veterans Affairs had 35,345 total full-time equivalent vacancies, said Curt Cashour, press secretary for the department.

"VA’s Veterans Health Administration is the largest integrated health care system in the nation, and VHA’s vacancy rate is about 9 percent, less than half the vacancy rate for private sector hospitals, which trend near 20 percent," he said. "But we’re always looking for qualified medical professionals to fill positions that meet patient needs."

A spokeswoman for Salt Lake's Veterans Medical Center also disputed claims of staff shortage.

"As of last week, our vacancy number was 268 (full-time equivalent positions)," explained Jennifer Dikes, spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Salt Lake City office. "There are a total 309 vacancies currently — the difference being shared time for some of our providers and part-time positions."

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"The reasons for the vacancies vary — for example, we recently gained authorization for the addition of new staff members for our TeleMental Hub — so that area is at a 58 percent vacancy rate because they are newly created and we are in the hiring process now," she said. "In summary — we are actively recruiting for all positions that we have funding for."

An Iraq War U.S. Army veteran, McDaniel said the answer to the problem of long waits for veteran care is for administrators in Utah and nationwide to make a concerted effort to fill the positions necessary to provide adequate service for patients.

"Hire the people. Get them trained. Get them in their jobs. The vets will have shorter wait times," he said. "It's simple. It doesn't have to be complicated. It's a disgrace to the vets."