More than 3,000 Defense Department medical civilians have left the agency in the face of furloughs and continued budget uncertainty, according to a report in USA Today.
A majority of the departures have come from the Army, where 5 percent of the civilian medical workforce has quit or retired this year. Vacated positions include “highly skilled clinicians, scientists, researchers and other health workers,” Lt. Gen. Patricia Horoho, the Army’s surgeon general, told USA Today.
Horoho pointed directly to the nearly departmentwide, mandatory days of unpaid leave as a possible impetus for the separations. Many of the medical staff left Defense to work for the Veterans Affairs Department, which was exempted from sequestration budget cuts.
While some DoD medical staff were also exempted from furloughs, about 60 percent of the Army’s doctors and nurses had to take six days of unpaid leave.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has repeatedly warned of the effects of sequestration on the morale of the workforce. While Hagel has said he hopes to avoid furloughs starting in October — should sequestration continue in the new fiscal year as scheduled — the department recently announced plans to lay off more than 6,000 workers in 2014.
In addition to the Army’s departures, the Air Force lost 6 percent of its medical staff between late-February and mid-August, USA Today reported, while the Navy lost about 1 percent. All told, nearly 3,400 civilian medical personnel quit in six-month period.
A Pentagon spokesman said the Defense Department made the decision to furlough only after careful consideration of the effects they — as well as alternative cuts — would have.
Hagel “recognized the significant hardship this placed on DoD civilians and their families,” Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen said in a statement to Government Executive. “We looked at all options to meet these cuts and unfortunately, furloughs became a reality.”
J. David Cox, national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said furloughs are only the latest in a series of challenges causing Defense civilians to leave.
“Don’t think that 3,400 professionals left DoD medical facilities in the past quarter only because of furloughs,” Cox told Government Executive. “It is furloughs on top of pay freezes, on top of hiring freezes, on top of retirement cuts, on top of threats of continued abuse and nine more years of sequestration. It’s the accumulation of cuts, disrespect and declining living standards that pushed them out the door.”
This story was updated to add comment from the Pentagon.