LAS VEGAS, NV (KTNV) — We set aside Nov. 11 to honor our veterans, but one big question looms: Are we selling our vets short, especially when it comes to healthcare?
A new report from the Department of Veterans Affairs that shows there are 49,000 unfilled positions at VA hospitals and clinics across the country.
Nevada is no exception.
13 Investigates has been chronicling VA issues and it often comes down to money. Crunching the numbers between the VA and private sector medical industry always has the VA coming up short.
It's not that VA hospitals and clinics don't want to pay doctors more -- they can't. There is a federal salary cap. It's such a large disparity, the VA says specialists can often make double in the private sector than what they'd make at the VA.
The comparatively low salaries lead to a lack of qualified applicants, and though things have improved over the past couple of years, the VA still can't compete.
This could impact wait times for veterans seeking the healthcare they were promised.
Here in Southern Nevada, new patients needing primary care could have to wait as long as 33 days for an appointment, but returning patients can be seen much sooner, between one day and a week.
Most mental health appointments have less than a seven day wait time, while women's health appointments are between one and three weeks out.
In June, we obtained the number of vacancies here in Las Vegas.
The Southern Nevada VA is approved for 3160 positions. That includes 400 new positions added in just under two years.
The VA says 517 positions are "...in various stages of hiring."
259 of those will start soon or are awaiting final clearance, which leaves 258 vacancies the VA is actively trying to fill in Las Vegas.
But the other issue is retention -- keeping the staff the VA already has.
"Things need to change. The culture there needs to change," says former VA doctor Brian Werner
"Yes absolutely. The VA is a numbers company," says another former VA provider, Dr. Victoria Smith. "There's no other way of looking at it."
Our investigation as recently as April detailed claims from more than a dozen current and past VA doctors and employees, people who describe a culture of fear at the Southern Nevada VA.
"Morale was terrible," says Dr. Smith. "People were unsure whether they were going to have a job."
Doctor Brian Werner left the VA after he says VA leadership not only failed to address problems he raised… but turned the tables and investigated him.
"We're supposed to be transparent," says Dr. Werner. "You're supposed to have these agencies and whistle-blowers and all these things you can file but the reality... it really doesn't work like that and people are afraid to come forward."
He and other doctors say patients can get caught in the crossfire.
"I've had patients that I've taken care of that were discriminated against because they had somebody who was advocating for them," says Dr. Smith. "And it's a sad situation. I hate seeing our veterans be short-shifted like this."
The VA sent a statement saying in part, "...the best indicator of adequate staffing levels is not vacancies, but Veteran access to care and health care outcomes. By those standards, VA is doing well."
We reached out to get an exact updated number of openings in the Southern Nevada VA, but because of the holiday we were not able get that.
But the VA says they recently added 50 nurses following a hiring fair. The VA also continues to add more positions to address mental health and addiction disorders.