McDonough: 6 VA healthcare workers have been separated for not following COVID-19 workplace protocols

The Department of Veterans Affairs is taking disciplinary action against healthcare workers who have failed to meet COVID-19 job requirements.

VA Secretary Denis McDonough said in a news conference Monday six employees have so far been separated from the agency for failing to meet the agency’s requirements for healthcare workers.

An employee refused to even inform the authority of his vaccination status. Four employees were fired for refusing to wear a mask and another for refusing to comply with COVID-19 testing requirements.

“We are in the process of initiating this disciplinary process throughout the system,” McDonough said.

McDonough has said repeatedly that the VA will not question the legitimacy of an employee’s health or religious exemption requests. However, he said the VA will not allow vaccination exemptions for employees working in certain specialties, such as intensive care units or oncology.

“The decision here was a clinical one at the end of the day. How can we reassure veterans that we have taken every step in our power to ensure their safety and protection?” said McDonough.

VA is currently providing reasonable accommodations for employees who have requested an exemption from the vaccination mandate.

“This process occurs post-establishment and post-network,” McDonough said, adding that he is not aware of any VA staffer who has left the agency because they were unhappy with their reasonable accommodation.

The Supreme Court in January upheld the Biden administration’s mandate to fully vaccinate most healthcare workers against COVID-19.

But the court struck down a broader mandate that would have required large companies to ensure their employees are regularly vaccinated or tested.

Earlier this month, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a lower court’s decision, upholding the administration’s requirement that all federal employees be vaccinated against COVID-19.

Federal appeals courts are still examining the legality of a vaccination order for federal contractors. Plaintiffs in those lawsuits argue that the mandate would affect approximately one-fifth of the entire US workforce.

McDonough said last fall that more Veterans Health Administration employees were requesting medical or religious exemptions from the agency’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate than for the previous year’s flu shot policy.

McDonough said last October that as part of the agency’s advisory process, VHA staff will have multiple opportunities to share their vaccination status and provide the department with the appropriate documentation.

“I’ve had nurses come up to me and make very strong, passionate, firm, professional and persuasive arguments to me personally and I really appreciate that. I want to be part of a system where people have the ability to speak openly and even passionately with their leadership,” McDonough said Monday.

The VA, meanwhile, plans to gradually bring the rest of its workforce back into the office.

McDonough said some VA workers who are still on mandatory telecommuting will return to the office in early May, while others will return later in May or June.

The agency, he added, remains involved in negotiations with unions and bargaining unit staff at individual facilities across the country.

“These are managed and implemented at the local level. There will not be a single national date that the negotiating unit staff will come back to the VHA, VBA and NCA,” McDonough said.

VA Assistant Secretary Donald Remy said last month that the VA returned non-negotiating unit staff to the office last week. The agency, he added, expects workers at the bargaining unit to return to the office by May.

Re-entering the office affects only part of the VA’s total workforce. Remy said nearly 80% of his staff have remained “right on the front lines” since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, providing medical care to patients and providing services at national cemeteries.

McDonough, meanwhile, is preparing to answer questions from lawmakers about the launch of its new electronic health record as part of the annual funding allocation process.

The VA Inspectorate, in a report published on Monday, warned of potential schedule delays with the agency’s stop-and-go rollout of EHR. The report states that each year of schedule delays will result in nearly $2 billion in cost overruns.

“I remain confident that we have the budgetary authority we need for the duration of this project. If we have reason to believe that we have the budgetary authority we need for the life of this project. Of course, if we have reason to believe that has changed, we will go straight to Congress and discuss it with them. But right now, I believe we have the budgetary authority that we need,” McDonough said.

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