Nearly 3,400 military medical workers quit this year in the months when furloughs were threatened or being carried out because of spending cuts known as sequestration. The vast majority of those losses were with Army medical facilities.
Lt. Gen. Patricia Horoho, the Army’s surgeon general, said one out of every 20 of her civilian medical doctors, nurses and other health workers — or 2,700 out of 42,000 civilian health employees — left their jobs for work elsewhere.
She said departing staffers included highly skilled clinicians, scientists, researchers and other health workers. Eighteen percent were doctors and nurses, her staff said. Medical support assistants, dental assistants, medical records technicians and administrative support personnel also quit or retired.
Many of those leaving went to work for the Veterans Affairs Department, which was not included in the budget cuts, Horoho said.
It’s not possible to know exactly why people quit, but Horoho said she believes much of the exodus was because of uncertainty over when and for how long the furloughs would occur, and whether they will resume next year, along with concerns about plans to downsize the Army in the near future.
She said the furloughs “had a very emotional impact. And that’s the piece, as the commander of Medcom (Army Medical Command), that if I could have avoided it, I would have. Some of our civilians are feeling very devalued.”
The Air Force, which has a smaller medical staff than the Army’s, reported a 6 percent loss during that period, or about 575 employees.
The Navy said it lost about 1 percent, or 120 people.
The job losses occurred from late February or March, when furloughs first loomed, to when they finally concluded this month.
The Pentagon initially reported that military civilian workers would be furloughed for 22 days. That was later reduced to 11 and finally to six over consecutive weeks that ended Aug.17.
The Army has the largest medical department of any service branch, provides more than half of the military’s health services and counts 3.9 million people as patients, including troops and their families and military retirees.
Horoho said she was forced to furlough about 60 percent of her doctors and nurses. She exempted most of her behavioral health staff, where only about 10 percent were sent home once a week.
At medical facilities across the military, including Walter Reed National Military Medical Center outside Washington, hours of operation were curtailed, patients were sent to civilian doctors and lesser medical procedures were delayed.