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Union Job Protection Demand Blunts Benefits Of Military-VA Hospital Merger

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Luke Rosiak Investigative Reporter

A plan to merge military and veterans hospitals is in jeopardy because the restructuring was based entirely on nobody losing their job, which produced a poorly organized medical facility that isn’t geared to patient care, federal auditors found.

The combined facility failed to achieve cost savings because a federal employees union demanded not a single worker be laid off, even though many jobs were redundant. Military members were dissatisfied by the work ethic they observed among Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) employees.

The newly released report examined the Lovell Federal Health Care facility in North Chicago at the end of a five-year pilot program. The findings are intended to help Congress weigh whether more Department of Defense and VA hospitals should be merged around the country.

“An executive decision memorandum stipulated that the FHCC maintain the staffing levels for the Naval Health Clinic and North Chicago VAMC by incorporating existing staff from both facilities in the same (or similar) positions and pay levels that existed prior to the integration,” the Government Accountability Office (GAO) wrote.

“However this approach is not consistent with government best practices, which recommend employing a data-driven workforce planning,” GAO said.

Lovell now has 1,000 active-duty personnel working alongside 2,000 American Federation of Government Employees union members.

Most of those interviewed by GAO said “differences between civilian and active duty managerial styles had negative effects on their daily work. For example, one active duty staff member expressed frustration with civilian supervisors, stating that their bureaucratic approach interfered with immediate patient needs and responsiveness.”

The negative comments came mostly from military members, who said the addition of VA employees made the hospital less effective for patients. Positive comments came mostly from VA workers, who said more work was getting done with the addition of military members.

Where VA bureaucrats had criticism of military officers, it seemed to be they were focused on results, not employee benefits.

They “perceived active duty managerial styles to be commanding and absolute. One civilian staff member expressed a concern with active duty supervisors’ unfamiliarity with civilian personnel rules, especially as they related to union agreements, employee discipline, and recruitment,” the report said.

Multiple Navy personnel told The Daily Caller News Foundation they went in to the merger with optimism, but now hope Congress doesn’t merge any more hospitals. Some say Lovell isn’t the lean, mean fighting machine they signed up for, and regret enlisting.

“They see people who watch the clock, not the mission,” said one who requested anonymity.

The civilian VA employees at Lovell are now members of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 2107, garnering union leadership an award for their fast-growing chapter. But the union’s emphasis on protecting the status quo is counteracting the military’s famous discipline.

The union filed a labor complaint demanding the home addresses of all of Lovell’s new employees in 2010.

In 2014, former union local president James Charleston pleaded guilty to mail fraud after being charged with theft on government property. Former vice president Jacquelyn Pugh-Rodgers and secretary Mary Craigen pleaded guilty to reduced charges after being indicted for embezzlement from a “federal enclave.”

The dual workforces pose the risk of perverse incentives where passing the buck to a harder worker was a rewarding strategy.

“Some active duty staff characterized civilian working styles as less accountable and more resistant to change, which they said resulted in lower morale and reduced efficiency. Other active duty staff told us that they were often held to a higher standard than their civilian counterparts and were expected to be more flexible in work settings,” the GAO said.

Current union local president Thomasina Simms refused to discuss the GAO report or to say what advantages union members brought to veterans.

Sailors say things have gotten better since 2014 with the appointment of a new director who hails from the VA but is also a former military doctor, yet they say ultimately a boss can’t change the overall character of rank-and-file workers, especially if he’s prohibited by union and civil service red tape from firing them.

That director, Stephen Holt, acknowledged the obvious differences between the two groups, while saying he was proud of both and the hospital’s track record in “writing the book” on an unprecedented merger.

“We bring two cultures together… Sometimes we ask each side to do things that the other side doesn’t have to do,” he told TheDCNF. “There’s a different level of how much you’re called to sacrifice,” but “we are very conscious not to dump on the active duty because we can.”

“In the military, we stay until the job is done. In the VA … when the day is done, it’s expected your day is done, we don’t expect people to stay later and work longer hours unless there’s some type of compensation. But that’s codified in federal law.”

Holt said most of the civilian staff don’t exhibit the problems pointed out to the GAO by active duties–in part because at his hospital, 40 percent of civilian employees are veterans, and were “well indoctrinated.” (RELATED: Navy refused to send sailors to joint VA-Navy hospital for treatment because they didn’t trust VA workers) 

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