This article was produced in partnership with New Mexico In Depth, which is a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network.
The head of the U.S. Veterans Health Administration, the nation’s largest integrated health care system, has banned most administrative staff from working at home, despite calls from public health officials and the White House for more Americans to stay home during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a March 13 memo obtained by New Mexico In Depth and ProPublica, Richard A. Stone, the VHA’s executive in charge, called for a halt to authorizations for administrative employees to telework until further notice, citing concern about overwhelming computer servers that are needed by health care providers for telemedicine.
“Telework is not to be authorized for administrative staff at this time,” the document states. “Telework may be authorized for patient care providers if that is the only way by which they can continue to provide patient care.”
Stone’s memo is the latest indication of how federal agencies are straining to function in the face of the crisis brought on by the novel coronavirus.
The March 13 memo came one day after the White House Office of Management and Budget called for agencies to maximize how many federal employees are allowed to work from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. Millions of federal employees have been awaiting authorizations for them to telework, ProPublica has reported.
VA employees expressed alarm that they might be unnecessarily exposed to the coronavirus at a time when the agency may be facing a flood of new patients. Many VA clients are elderly, a group at especially high risk from COVID-19.
Employees at the Raymond G. Murphy VA Medical Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico, said there was growing frustration among workers that requests to work from home were being ignored. A physician at the hospital tested positive for COVID-19 on March 12, and 25 patients have been tested. It is unclear whether any of those tests returned positive.
“I think the facility is at significant risk,” one employee said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
The VHA oversees 1,255 health care facilities serving 9 million veterans each year. Two veterans at VA facilities have died from the coronavirus and 130 have tested positive, according to media reports and VA press briefings.
VHA spokesperson Bobbi D. Gruner wrote in an email Thursday that the agency was following OMB guidance to minimize risk to employees while maintaining the ability to care for veterans. “We are ensuring our daily operations incorporate as much telework as possible in those functions that are telework eligible,” Gruner wrote.
The VA has already taken emergency actions to continue serving veterans. Last month, the agency opened 19 new operations centers across the country and has begun restricting entry to its facilities for those suspected of exposure to the novel coronavirus. Officials have also cut back on dental and elective surgeries. Nationwide, 44 VHA patients have been diagnosed with COVID-19, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said at a White House briefing Wednesday.
While acknowledging the need to ensure adequate network capacity, the Albuquerque VA employee expressed frustration that the agency hadn’t acted sooner to expand capacity. The employee voiced concern that leadership would “sit and wait” until the COVID-19 outbreak becomes more severe before allowing support staff to work from home. Requests for authorization to work from home are being ignored, the employee said.
“Right now, there is a stack a foot high in HR that they are just sitting on,” the employee said.
Employees allowed to work remotely could be called back to the hospital if front-line workers fall ill during the pandemic, the employee said.
Many jobs can be done remotely and every person working at the hospital is “another possible infection and carrier,” said another Albuquerque VA worker, also speaking on the condition of anonymity.
In a second memo issued Monday, Stone encouraged employees with existing telework authorizations to reduce demands on network bandwidth by checking email using mobile devices and to avoid Skype meetings and perfunctory emails.
Employees with iPads and iPhones are also able to work remotely.
“New telework approvals should only be made for clinical staff who will be using the remote connection to provide healthcare,” Stone wrote.
Stone’s second memo also called on supervisors to review workers’ previously granted work-from-home authorizations. He recommended approval of requests for leave or telework “for a limited period” to allow employees to arrange child care but noted that “absent undue hardship, long term school closures may not be a reason to approve new telework agreements.”
Bryant Furlow is a reporter for New Mexico In Depth.