When the gleaming new Veterans Affairs Medical Center on Canal Street opened its doors in November, officials boasted of an army of 2,500 doctors, nurses and support staff who would provide patients with cutting-edge medical care.
But a federal hiring freeze instituted in the first days of President Donald Trump’s administration has cast a shadow over plans to fill 1,000 of those positions over the next year.
While subsequent orders have loosened some restrictions on the VA — and on its newly opened hospitals in particular — questions persist about how the freeze will affect the wide range of services envisioned at the billion-dollar medical complex, more than 10 years in the making.
Local and federal elected officials, as well as leaders of other medical facilities that had been expected to work closely with the VA, say they’ve received no information on what the freeze means for staffing and services at the hospital — which was still looking to hire nearly 40 percent of the employees it needs when Trump took office.
The VA itself has not provided any details on how the orders will affect the New Orleans hospital despite multiple requests for information from The New Orleans Advocate.
“Anything that reduces their ability to fully staff up will have some negative repercussions — that’s pretty clear,” said Walter Lane, an associate professor at the University of New Orleans who studies health care economics.
The long wait for a Veterans Affairs hospital in New Orleans is nearing its end, as the fina…
The VA hospital, which has been in the works since the agency’s previous local health care center was destroyed during Hurricane Katrina, had been eagerly anticipated not only as a crucial care provider for more than 43,000 veterans in 23 parishes.
It is also the linchpin of a broader vision in which the VA hospital and the adjacent state-owned University Medical Center were counted on to serve as anchors for a medical corridor expected to bring thousands of direct jobs as well as spillover jobs in associated industries.
How those plans will play out if the hospital's staffing is scaled back remains to be seen.
Whether that happens may depend on the Trump administration's next moves. Days after he took office, Trump signed an executive order stopping new federal hiring except for the military or jobs related to national security or public safety.
But days later, acting VA Secretary Robert Snyder announced a wide swath of positions that would be exempted from the freeze, mostly doctors and nurses who directly deal with patients, but also security guards, laundry workers, chaplains and some other staff. In a memo, Snyder also granted specific exemptions for two dozen centers that are in the process of opening, including the New Orleans hospital and two others in Louisiana.
“To ensure veterans are able to continue accessing state-of-the-art facilities and the quality care they deserve, I am granting exemptions to ensure the minimum staffing required to become or remain operational and to ensure the safety and health standards required by law are met,” Snyder's memo said in part.
But the memo also said that support positions would need specific exemptions on a facility-by-facility basis.
The VA has not provided details on what that “minimum staffing” would look like at the New Orleans hospital or how that would affect a roll-out of more and more services that had been planned to take place all year.
Local VA officials directed questions to the VA’s home office in Washington, D.C., which has not responded to requests for more information.
Based on those orders, though, it appears the hospital will be able to continue hiring doctors and nurses and at least some of the large numbers of support staff it would need. It's not clear — and the VA has not said — how many jobs in those categories remain unfilled at the medical center.
It’s not just the media that have been kept in the dark. The offices of U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans, and Mayor Mitch Landrieu said they also have not received any additional information on the hospital’s plans. Likewise, other health care providers that work with the VA and veterans groups in the state have said they aren't in the loop.
The new hospital had been planning to staff up slowly. Its clinics are seeing patients now, but the emergency room wasn’t scheduled to open until the middle of 2017. More specialized services, meanwhile, were slated to start toward the end of the year.
If it reaches its full anticipated staffing, the hospital would be one of the largest employers in the city. But the dream that the two new adjacent hospitals would drive an economic boom for the city through new, high-paying jobs and spin-off businesses and research was already being scaled back due to problems with state funding at UMC, Lane said.
“They haven’t been able to get where they said they were going,” Lane said. “Partially the issue is that the state put a lot of money in to build a new building, but I'm not certain that they put in enough money to staff it up to make it a destination location.”
Slowdowns in hiring at the VA could further dampen those expectations.
Moreover, Lane said, the nationwide hiring freeze could exacerbate challenges already faced by the VA, which has been widely criticized in recent years for long wait times and problems with how it has provided treatment.
“This is a little surprising to me. Certainly a hiring freeze fits well with Trump’s general ideas, but he had some very strong commitments to building up the VA system,” Lane said.
“The hiring freeze does not fix the problem,” he said. But he added, “Throwing a lot of money at it last time didn’t seem to fix it either.”