BILOXI, MS (WLOX) - Employees at the Biloxi VA Center say dangerously low staffing is creating risks to patients.
On Thursday, a rally organized by the American Federation of Government Employees Local 1045 made the message clear. The chants were as loud as the need is great.
"It's been many years since I've seen employees on these streets and the last time it happened, it did do some good," said medical support assistant Ross Hunt. "So, I'm hopeful, yes."
The nearly 150 VA Centers have more than 49,000 vacancies that need to be filled.
At the Biloxi center, the number of vacancies is about 300.
"It's overwhelming the amount of work we have and so few workers," said Danielle Barton, a nurse responsible for authorizing care in the community. "We've been tasked to work overtime for the past three years, at least, because there's not enough staffing."
She said the short staff is taking a toll.
"Personally, I have some medical issues because of it. A few of the other nurses in our department do too because we're so concerned about the veterans getting their care in a timely manner," Barton said.
Angela Poirson, president of AFGE Local 1045, said it all comes down to the patients.
"These veterans deserve that care," she said. "They fought for our country and we owe it to them."
She said the Biloxi center's one-star rating is a result of the low staffing.
"When you continually don't fill vacancies, that also impacts morale and contributes to that one star."
Interim VA director Christopher Saslo said the center has made significant progress speeding up the hiring process.
However, he understands the anger.
Saslo said, "We echo their frustrations in many ways because trying to find the best providers or the best staff for the positions is a challenge based upon some of the competition in our community, as well as making sure we get people through the process and making sure they are the right fit for the organization."
On Wednesday, Sen. Roger Wicker asked the VA Secretary to improve performance at both Biloxi and Jackson centers.
He said that low ratings were particularly disappointing when 64% of the VA centers showed improvement last year.