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Veterans and Nurses Fight for Improvements at the Jesse Brown VA

By Robert Clack

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IVAW Chicago chapter members have long been concerned about the quality of care and service they receive at the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center (JBVA). In the midst of a suicide epidemic (22 suicides a day in 2012) and based on our members' own bad experiences, IVAW Chicago decided to begin organizing to demand improvements in quality of care.

Some of the members had experienced issues including long wait times, not receiving medicine or care in a timely manner and insensitivity from some staff. Some of IVAW's Women Veterans were also concerned about the Women's Health Clinic which was a shared space with the VA's Neurology clinic. "You would go into the women's clinic for treatment and you walk into a room full of men. For Veterans receiving treatment for Military Sexual Trauma (MST), this can be a trauma trigger," said IVAW member Sabrina Waller.

In March 2012 the chapter began organizing. Through the Move the Money coalition (a local labor and economic rights coalition), IVAW made contact with National Nurses United (NNU), the union that represents the JBVA Nurses. The Nurses were also frustrated with the VA and were concerned with understaffing, long work hours, and lack of training of the staff on issues of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Military Sexual Trauma (MST), Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), and military culture. The training was so bad that the nurses in the VA's psych ward had not even received training on PTSD from the VA. Concerned nurses had to seek training independently.

It was also discovered that some of the staffing levels of nurses were dangerously low and that nurses could be responsible for up to 13 or 14 inpatients at a time. The Nurses and Veterans clearly realized they had a common struggle and called for an informational picket to air their grievances under the banner of "Safe Staffing for Veterans Right to Heal."

The VA leadership quickly responded to the planned picket and offered a meeting if IVAW and NNU canceled their picket. In good faith, both groups agreed and a meeting was held with the Director of the VA, the Nurses Director, the Regional Network Director, and representatives from the VA central office.

The meeting was a success and the VA agreed to address many of the issues brought forward, including giving the Women's Center its own space, agreeing to hire more nurses, other support staff and to improve training. The VA leadership also agreed to regular meetings with IVAW and NNU.

IVAW and NNU have continued to work together to hold the VA accountable for their commitments. Along with following through with the Women's Center, the VA has hired 6 nurses of 13 promised for the psych ward. Nurses are also being hired for other areas of the hospital. Two patient advocates to help assist Veterans navigate the VA were hired as well. The Nurses have also reported progress on training issues, although the training is not yet as comprehensive and universal as desired.

"This is the kind of work that saves lives," said VVAW member Barry Romo, "I can't believe we have gotten so much done in less than a year's time, we never would have accomplished so much without our collaboration with NNU."

Although starting as an experiment, after the success of the Chicago chapter, IVAW is now moving to incorporate VA work as part of a "Right to Heal campaign." The campaign will focus on holding the VA accountable to giving quality care for PTSD, MST, TBI as well as physical ailments related to military service. Recently the Colorado chapter of IVAW announced forming a "Right to Heal Committee" to work to improve the VA in Denver. Organizers hope this will be the next step in forming a National VA campaign that demands improved care for Veterans throughout the country.

Robert Clack is a volunteer organizer for IVAW Chicago and the Right to Heal campaign. He is also a Community Organizer with the Metropolitan Tenants Organization in Chicago.

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