Pentagon cuts number of unpaid furlough days for civilian workers to six

Posted at 2:14 PM, Aug 06, 2013
and last updated 2013-08-07 06:29:18-04

Washington (CNN) - The Pentagon has cut the number of unpaid furlough days for civilian employees from 11 to six.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced the furloughs would end next week instead of late September because the agency made other moves to save money to trim furloughs.

Hagel cautioned that the budget cuts and possible furloughs may be deeper in the upcoming fiscal year if Congress does not act soon.

"As we look ahead to fiscal year 2014, less than two months away, the Department of Defense 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. This represents 40 percent 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."

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Furloughs at military hospitals and clinics are causing delays in surgeries for soldiers and vaccinations for babies.

Thousands of doctors, nurses and military hospital workers are among the 650,000 defense workers on furlough one day each week starting July 8, due to forced federal spending cuts that kicked in on March 1.

It's been causing long waits and delayed care at the nation's 56 military hospitals and 365 health care clinics that serve some 9.7 million people -- soldiers, retired soldiers and their families.

Six clinics at Womack Army Medical Center in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, are closed on Fridays. Several pharmacies also shut down a few days each week at Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center at Fort Hood.

At Madigan Army Medical Center at Fort Lewis in Washington, non-urgent surgeries have been delayed and urgent surgeries are being referred to private hospitals, spokesman Jay Ebbeson confirmed.

"There is the potential that some patients who currently receive care at Madigan will experience a reduction in services," Ebbeson said. However, he stressed that the cuts will not "compromise the safe, quality health care we currently provide."

Military families are growing frustrated, said Joyce Raezer, executive director of the National Military Family Association. The group has heard from families who were forced to wait in emergency rooms because they can't get a clinic appointment for weeks. And babies who need regular rounds of vaccinations in their first year are getting them weeks or months later than usual.

"We're delaying care and it's making the care more expensive. Patients will come in sicker or we're sending them out to the private sector, which is more expensive for the government," Raezer said.

The cuts, meant to save money, are ironically raising the health care tab for the Department of Defense. That happens each time furloughs force Army hospitals to refer patients to the private sector, confirmed Maria Tolleson, a spokeswoman for the Army surgeon general.

The Defense Department has tried to cushion the blow by exempting some surgeons and doctors and workers who are deemed critical to care. At Madigan, for example, some 758 of the 3,200 civilian staff were deemed too critical to furlough.

The rest of the staff are out one day each week. That means no walk-in appointments at the allergy clinic, audiology clinic or the earn nose and throat clinic. Even the clinic to care for the wounded has reduced hours.

The furloughs, combined with a hiring freeze, means fewer staffers can work the operating rooms. It's delayed spinal cord and brain surgeries, among other kinds of surgery, said Jennifer Cari Green, a secretary at the neurology department at Madigan.

"We've run into some snags, because they're having to cut down on the number of operating rooms they run in a day," said Green, a single mom who is serving her furloughs on Fridays. "You still have the same flow of patients, but fewer operating rooms to help them."