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Thousands of vacant VA jobs costing taxpayers billions | News

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Thousands of vacant VA jobs costing taxpayers billions
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DECATUR, Ga. -- The Veterans Health Administration says it has 41,500 vacant medical staff positions throughout its network of 139 hospitals and clinics.

Critics blame the complex hiring process, poor recruitment and low wages compared to the private sector.

But according an analysis by USA Today, even a 1% increase in job vacancies contributes to more appointments being pushed past a month-long wait.

According to data provided by the Veteran's Health Administration as part of an open records request, the Atlanta Medical Center was operating last month without nearly 25% of its staff, or 880 medical workers. It was the fourth highest number of staff vacancies in the country.

INTERACTIVE DATABASE: Check VA vacancies (Search by facility, city or state for details and wait time)

Between the three hospitals in Decatur, Dublin and Augusta, the data revealed 505 vacancies for nurses, 137 for nursing assistants, 153 physicians and 205 medical support workers. James Wright says its obvious the pharmacy is also under staffed.

"If you go there and get a prescription they say we'll mail it to you, because if you go to the pharmacy you'll sit there and wait, you'll be there all day," he explained.

Wright spent 20 years in the Air Force as an aircraft engineer. The ringing in his ears, exposure to agent orange and nightmares bring him to the VA several times a years. He knows the common complaints.

"Red tape. Lack of care. People walking around not – they're doing enough to keep their jobs but they don't care about the veteran," said Wright.

When vets can't get approved care, they are allowed to see a private doctor, on the taxpayers dime. VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson told Congress, the VA paid for 1.5 million veterans to see private clinicians last year, costing taxpayers $7.7 billion dollars.

Wright and several other veterans 11Alive's Rebecca Lindstrom spoke with, said the problems at the VA were getting better. But progress is slow

"It's not going to get better overnight because it's ingrained over the years," said Wright.

But Wright and several others I talked with say they are slowly seeing improvements.

Rich Sestili with Disabled American Veterans said, "VA hospital Director Leslie Wiggins has turned this place around. Over the past two years there is a new attitude. Once a month she has a town hall meeting at the hospital. This is a big deal."

We asked to talk with Wiggins about the vacancies, but no one within administration would talk with us. The medical center did release a written statement saying:

"The Atlanta VA Medical Center is committed to providing timely, high quality care to our Veterans. To meet the demands as one of the VA's fastest growing medical centers, we have hired 219 employees from June 28, 2015 to present and plan to hire an additional 301 employees between September 9, 2015 and October 1, 2015. Currently, we have 30 open positions.

When the recommended standard of care is not available within the medical center or if we are unable to provide the recommended standard of care within 30 days, patients are eligible for the Choice program and may receive non-VA care at VA expense."

We asked for clarification on why the medical centers local numbers were so different than the numbers coming directly from the Veteran's Health Administration, but received no response.

VA leadership says hiring in the past year matched the 9% attrition rate, and actually added new employees. The agency hired an additional 1,000 physicians and 2,700 nurses in a 13-month period ending on May 1.

The Choice Act passed last August also created 10,000 new medical positions to fill, making vacancy figures appear worse, a spokesman said.

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