By Sandra Basu
WASHINGTON–Federal civilian healthcare professionals hoping that the federal pay freeze would be lifted this holiday season will have to wait a little longer. President Obama signed legislation at the end of September that will extend the two-year federal pay freeze through March 2013.
The pay freeze had originally been set to expire in December 2012. In a letter to Congress in August, President Obama explained that he supported a 2013 0.5% across-the-board pay increase for federal employees but said that it should only take effect when the FY 2013 budget is passed and not during the period of a continuing resolution.
The fate of the pay freeze was sealed when Congress failed to approve an FY 2013 budget before leaving town in September, instead passing a six-month continuing resolution spending measure through March 27, 2013, to avoid a government shutdown. In that measure, it extended the two-year pay freeze.
Organizations representing federal employees expressed dismay at the events leading the continuation of the pay freeze.
“Federal employees cannot afford another four months or even another day of frozen wages,” J. David Cox Sr., national president of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), AFL-CIO, said in a written statement in August. “The VA nursing assistant struggling on less than $30,000 per year has already lost almost $2,000 during the last two years, while still facing rising health insurance premiums, and annual increases in rent, child care, and grocery prices.”
National Nurses United, which represents 9,000 VA nurses, called the extension of the pay freeze a “disservice” to VA nurses.
“We are really disappointed by the extension of this pay freeze. This is affecting hard-working nurses who are providing care to America’s heroes,” NNU Director of VA Policy Brad Burton told U.S. Medicine.
Meanwhile, the Federal Physicians Association warned its members that “a pay raise will not be available until at least April 2013, assuming Congress by then approves a Fiscal Year 2013 funding bill. It is uncertain whether any pay raise approved next year will be retroactive to Jan. 1, 2013.”
Obama proposed the two-year pay freeze for much of the civilian federal worker force in 2010. In calling for its extension, he said, that “civilian federal employees have already made significant sacrifices as a result of a two-year pay freeze,” but that “we must maintain efforts to keep our nation on a sustainable fiscal course.”
Not all healthcare professionals in the federal government have been affected by the pay freeze, since it exempted members of the uniformed services.
A facility-specific survey found that 138 of 140 VA facilities reported shortages of medical officers, with psychiatry and primary care positions being the most frequently listed.
When Terrence O’Neil, MD, retired as chief of nephrology at the James H. Quillen VAMC in Johnson City in December 2016, he left in his wake decades of work treating kidney disease—nearly 35 years in the Air Force and DoD, plus 11 more at VA.