By Sandra Basu
WASHINGTON – In welcome news for DoD’s civilian employees, including medical personnel, the number of furlough days was reduced from 11 to six this year. That effectively ended the furlough period last month for most employees.
The unpaid furloughs, which began July 8 and affected most DoD civilian employees, were originally scheduled for the rest of FY 2013.
In a written statement last month, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel explained that the department was able to reduce the number of furlough days because a large reprogramming proposal submitted to Congress in May finally was approved in late July.
Additionally, unexpected savings contributed to the reduction in furlough days.
Please click here to participate in this month’s U.S. Medicine readership poll.
“We are also experiencing less-than-expected costs in some areas, such as transportation of equipment out of Afghanistan. Where necessary, we have taken aggressive action to transfer funds among services and agencies, and the furloughs have saved us money,” he said.
Despite the reduction in furlough days, Hagel warned that DoD “still faces major fiscal challenges.”
“If Congress does not change the Budget Control Act, DoD will be forced to cut an additional $52 billion in FY 2014, starting on October 1,” he said. “This represents 40% more than this year’s sequester-mandated cuts of $37 billion. Facing this uncertainty, I cannot be sure what will happen next year, but I want to assure our civilian employees that we will do everything possible to avoid more furloughs.”
For months before furloughs were implemented, DoD officials had been warning lawmakers about the impact the unpaid leave would have on the department, including medical care. In patient care areas, nearly 40% of the medical staff in military hospitals and clinics is civilian, DoD officials pointed out.
A fairly small number of civilian personnel, including some in the medical areas, were ultimately able to avoid furloughs, but most were forced to take days off. Exemptions of medical personnel included 410 in the Air Force, 1,418 in the Navy and as many as 6,600 in the Army. In addition, exemptions applied to 165 medical staff members at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Bethesda, MD, and 203 at Fort Belvoir.
The commander at Fort Belvoir Community Hospital which serves about 38,000 beneficiaries, Army Col. Charles Callahan, told U.S. Medicine that everyone at the Northern Virginia facility was “very excited” about the reduction of unpaid furlough days for civilian employees. Furloughs had affected about 1,163 civilian employees there.
“It was certainly a big deal for the staff,” Callahan said pointing to what was an effective pay cut to those employees.
Despite the furloughs, patient care was not severely affected by lower staffing levels at the hospital, Callahan said. In fact, the hospital was able to maintain complete access to care for its wounded, ill and injured troops, as well as its round-the-clock inpatient and emergency services, including labor and delivery.
Where Callahan said that patients “felt the biggest impact” from furloughs was in services such as after-hours clinics and weekend access to the pharmacy.
American Federation of Government Employees National President J. David Cox Sr. called for reimbursement for furloughed employees, meanwhile.
“The terrible economic harm and injustice that has already been done to the 650,000 DoD civilians who should have never been furloughed has yet to be addressed. I am calling on Secretary Hagel to take immediate action to reimburse the furloughed employees for the six days of income they have lost,” he said in a written statement.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard P. “Buck” McKeon (R-CA) said in a written statement that, while he was pleased that the DoD “ found a way to alleviate furloughs and introduce a little more certainty into the workforce,” he would caution “that we are still miles away from resolving sequestration.”
“The House has voted multiple times to end these mindless, automatic cuts that are creating a military-readiness crisis. Unfortunately, until the president throws the full weight of the White House behind a unified, bipartisan effort to steer us out of this mess, I fear that furloughs will turn to layoffs, and a readiness crisis will turn to a readiness emergency,” he said.
DoD officials have painted a dire picture should sequestration continue in FY 2014. Days before Hagel’s announcement about the reduction in furlough days, Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter warned the House Armed Services Committee that voluntary separation of servicemembers and layoffs would be possible if sequestration continues in FY 2014.
“Obviously we hate to do that kind of thing, but that’s the kind of thing that becomes necessary if sequestration continues,” he said.
Last month the Military Officers Association of America encouraged its members to send their legislators a form letter saying “unless Congress acts to repeal sequestration and replace it with an alternative debt reduction deal, another, even more devastating round of defense cuts will be required.”
“Please put partisan politics aside and develop an alternative debt reduction package that fairly balances required sacrifices and avoids disproportional penalties for servicemembers, retirees, and their families,” according to the message.