Late Breaking News
Furloughs Begin This Month for Thousands of MHS Civilian Employees
By Sandra Basu
WASHINGTON — After months of speculation about whether and when furloughs would go into effect, thousands of DoD civilian employees — including those working in the Military Health System — are expected to feel the brunt of unpaid furloughs this month.
“I know this is going to be difficult, but we’ll get through this,” Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel told employees at a town hall meeting in May. “And I said [to] everyone going in, ‘We’re going in together; we’re coming out together.’”
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The furloughs resulted from sequestration budget cuts enacted to take effect March 1,after lawmakers were unable to agree on a solution to avert the budget cuts. While earlier this year it was conjectured that DoD civilian employees could be furloughed for as long as 22 days, the impact ultimately was lessened somewhat, with DoD deciding that furloughed employees would take off as many as 11 days.
“Furloughs for up to 11 days represent about half of the 22 days that can legally be imposed in a year and also about half the number we had originally planned,” a memo from Hagel explained in May. “This halving of previous furlough plans reflects vigorous efforts to meet our budgetary shortfalls through actions other than furloughs, as well as congressional passage of an appropriations bill in late March that reduced the shortfalls in our operating budget and expectations of congressional action on our reprogramming request.”
For months, DoD officials have warned lawmakers about the impact that sequestration and furloughs would have on the department. In patient-care areas, nearly 40% of the medical staff in military hospitals and clinics is civilian, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs Jonathan Woodson, MD, pointed out.
“We can expect the furlough of medical staff will impact access to care, perhaps causing inconvenience and dissatisfaction among those patients accustomed to getting their care in military treatment facilities,” he said this spring in testimony submitted to a subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee.
Some civilian personnel, including in the medical areas, were able to avoid furloughs. Exemptions of medical personnel detailed in Hagel’s May memo on the subject included:
- 410 in the Air Force;
- 1,418 in the Navy;
- As many as 6,600 in the Army;
- 165 medical staff members at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center; and
- 203 at Fort Belvoir.
Hagel wrote that the exemptions of some medical personnel are needed to “maintain quality of care in 24/7 emergency rooms and other critical care areas such as behavioral health, wounded warrior support, and disability evaluation.”
“Furloughing these employees would result in unacceptable care being provided and the department would incur increased costs for premium pay or TRICARE,” Hagel’s memo stated.
Despite the exemptions, a DoD spokesperson told U.S. Medicine that furloughs “will affect all facets of the Military Health System.”
“There will be limited exceptions, driven by law, to the decision to furlough,” the spokesperson said in a written statement.
Furloughs at USU
As at other federal institutions, the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USU), braced for the impact of the furloughs last month. USU President Charles Rice, MD, told U.S. Medicine that, while about 20 civilians working there are exempt from the furloughs, mostly those responsible for the laboratory animal operations, roughly 800 of its civilian employees will be furloughed.
Rice, who is among those who will be required to take unpaid days off, said that, because the furlough “does not come in isolation,” its overall impact on the university is compounded by other factors.
“We’ve had a pay freeze in effect for 2½ years. We have had the hiring freeze imposed. We have had pretty severe restrictions on the attendance at conferences … We have had restrictions on travel, and with the sequestration we have had an impact particularly on our research mission, both internally- as well as externally-funded research projects, including some that are doing some really groundbreaking work in mild traumatic injury and post-traumatic stress,” he said.
The university will be able to manage the furloughs, Rice said, because military personnel, who comprise a “not insignificant component” of the faculty cannot be furloughed. In addition, because the university can be flexible in determining on which day of the week a civilian faculty member will have an unpaid day off, the university will be able to manipulate schedules so that classes can proceed.
“We will get our mission accomplished. We are here to make sure that we educate the next generation of healthcare professionals and we are not going to let that suffer,” he said.
Research, however, likely would still be impacted.
“What the faculty will do is make sure they get the teaching responsibilities taken care of, so if they have to take a day of furlough it is more likely that they will take it out of the time they had allocated for research,” he said.
As Rice sees it, “nobody is happy” about the situation.
“I really worry about people who are lower down on the pay scale at the institution,” he said. “We’ve got people who live paycheck to paycheck and taking a 20% pay cut is not trivial. If I could figure out a way to shift the furlough burden from those people to our higher paid employees, I would do that in a heartbeat.”