1 in 10 Nurses at D.C.-Area VA Hospitals Have Retired, Left Since Jan.

Nurses are departing the Washington D.C.-area’s VA medical center in droves, according to federal personnel records obtained by News4.

About 10 percent of nurses working in the Washington D.C., Martinsburg, West Virginia and Baltimore medical facilities of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs have resigned or retired since January.

A retirement bubble is hitting the Martinsburg Medical Center in particular. The facility, which treats veterans from Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia, saw a spike in nursing retirements in 2015, those records show.

Almost 13 percent of its nurses left in 2015, most of them to retirements, according to the records. That was the highest rate in four years at all three facilities.

The agency, in a statement to News 4, said it is being impacted by a nationwide nursing shortage and competition from higher-paying private hospital nursing jobs.

“As the nation's largest integrated health care delivery system, (the VA’s) workforce challenges mirror those of the health care industry as a whole," an agency spokesman said.

Thor Wold, a Virginia veteran of the Iraq War, said he has noticed the turnover of nurses at the Washington D.C. VA Medical Center on Irving Street.

“Any time you have a high turnover rate, you lose something in continuity," Wold said. "It’s never going to be the same as the nurse you’re used to seeing.”

The turnover of nursing staff, which is impacting veterans medical centers nationwide, is happening a particularly inopportune time for the Department of Veterans Affairs. The number of patient visits and aging veterans is quickly rising.

A review of agency staffing levels by the Government Accountability Office had flagged nursing retirements and resignations as a future risk. The Government Accountability Office report said, “(The VA) projects that approximately 40,000 new RNs will be needed through FY 2018 to maintain adequate staffing levels, including replacing retired nurses, to meet veterans’ needs.”

Critics of the agency said recent scandals inside the VA are hurting its recruitment of nurses.

“The Department of Veterans Affairs is an agency where proven incompetence, corruption and whistleblower retaliation are routinely tolerated," Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Florida) said. "This sad fact is contributing to all of the department’s most serious problems, including VA’s struggles to fill open positions for doctors, nurses and other health care professionals.”

A VA spokesman said the agency is using “nontraditional” recruitment tools to lure new nurses to its workforce. The agency is offering to repay the student loans of nurses and offering relocation bonuses to those who move to work at a VA medical center or office.

The nurses themselves, meanwhile, say the career is exhausting -- but rewarding. Susan George, a senior nurse at the Martinsburg Medical Center, retired late in 2015.  

“There’s fatigue to being a nurse, but there’s also satisfaction to being a nurse," George said. "It gives you good experiences and adds to your life and career.”

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