VA nurses faces staffing challenges, uncertain future



The Margaret Cochran Corbin VA Campus on East 23rd Street. Photo by Katie Moody

The Veterans Affairs hospital in Manhattan remains open, after the federal government changed course and decided to keep the medical center operational.

Although the Margaret Cochran Corbin VA Campus on East 23rd Street is up and running, there’s still uncertainty about its future. A high turnover rate among nurses, many of whom retired or sought different jobs during the pandemic, highlights an ongoing staffing issue. Now the remaining VA nurses are demanding more support and better work conditions before patient care is diminished by a thinned-out and overwhelmed staff.

“In our program right now, we’ve had retirements. We’re a skeleton group,” said Ketsia Glemaud, a nurse at the Manhattan VA Mental Health Outpatient Clinic. “I just try to do the best that I can every single day,” she said.

Tensions at Manhattan’s VA hospital came to the forefront in January, when nurses held a rally onsite to demand more recruitment. Their outcry represents a national trend; data from the Department of Veterans Affairs shows that 91% of VA facilities reported severe shortages for nurses in fiscal year 2022.

And the nurses’ dissatisfaction comes at a time when New York City’s VA system could see a surge in new patients.

The PACT Act, a recent piece of legislation that expands healthcare to veterans exposed to burn pits and other toxic substances, could qualify several million patients for care in the coming years.

James Young, an infection control nurse who has worked at the Brooklyn VA for 10 years, said his unit has been short-staffed for two or three years. With a coworker out sick, Young is currently the only infection control nurse on the Brooklyn campus.

“If something goes wrong, I’m it. That’s definitely something I have to weigh on my mind when I come into work every day,” said Young. “We’re still all on alert status all the time because of COVID.”

Young said the VA New York Harbor Healthcare System has several vacancies in infection control.

Nurses said that while both the Manhattan and Brooklyn hospitals have hired more staff since the January rally, there is a need to change the hiring process, which can take months, causing applicants to look elsewhere for employment.

The New York State Board of Nursing issued over 30,000 professional nursing licenses in 2022, according to the New York State Education Department. VA nurses emphasized that the challenge is not a shortage of registered nurses, but hiring and retaining them.

“The hiring process needs to be streamlined. It’s very drawn out,” said Tracey Thomas-Treadwell, a bedside nurse at the Manhattan VA.

Nurses tend to stay at an organization when they find the hospital environment supportive, have an effective manager, and feel a sense of workforce cohesion, said Christine Kovner, a professor emerita at NYU Rory Meyers College of Nursing who researches the nursing workforce.

Kovner said a common misconception about turnover is that nurses are leaving the industry. But often they are moving to a different hospital that offers a higher salary, better working conditions or a different nursing department that is less stressful, she said.

“When I leave work, I want to go home feeling like I’ve done my best, but sometimes it’s really hard to feel that way when you don’t have the staffing that you need to provide the care that you want to provide,” said Thomas-Treadwell. “At the end of the day, how are my patients feeling? How are their family members feeling? You don’t have time to talk to them on the phone. It’s hard.”

Many of the VA nurses in the New York Harbor system are represented by National Nurses United, a union that is advocating to reduce the numbers of hours nurses work each week.

Their current contract mandates three 12-hour shifts and one eight-hour shift per week, but the union is pushing to eliminate the extra eight-hour shift. The reduced schedule has been adopted by some VA hospitals across the country, but nurses and union representatives feel that hospital directors have put barriers in the way in Manhattan and Brooklyn.

“They keep coming up with reasons why we can’t do it,” said Young.

“Challenging the national nursing shortage is a top priority for VA New York Harbor,” a hospital spokesperson said in a statement.

The VA administration hosted two nursing job fairs in 2023, resulting in 72 new nurse hires, and approved a special salary increase for nursing assistants and licensed practical nurses, the spokesperson added. “Everyone who worked in health care in New York during COVID experienced stress. Following this experience—and based on the results of our All-Employee Survey—we made it a priority to listen to our staff and developed programs based on their suggestions.”

Just a year ago the VA hospitals in Manhattan and Brooklyn were on the verge of shutting down.

A 2022 market analysis from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs recommended closing both facilities due to veterans moving out of the city and lowering demand. The proposed solution was to absorb certain VA medical services into existing community health providers and university hospitals.

Sen. Chuck Schumer helped lead a campaign to fight the closures, and the proposal ultimately died in the Senate.

“At the VA, we are concerned about closure. We’re hoping that we never come to that because the vets have specific specialized needs that the VA provides,” said Glemaud. “I just try to make it work. We all try to make it work.”