TAMPA — Army Staff Sgt. Alex Dillmann, his spine severely wounded by an explosion in Afghanistan, said his nurses at the James A. Haley VA Medical Center were horribly overworked and short-staffed.
He said his wound dressing wasn't changed often enough nor would he get pain medication promptly. If he soiled himself, Dillmann said, it could take 40 minutes for a nurse to answer a call button.
His wife started doing some of the nurse's work herself out of necessity, the couple said. Finally, Dillmann asked the Army to send him to another hospital. In September 2012, he transferred to a private Atlanta facility.
"Things were just being overlooked," said Dillmann, 27, of Tampa, who is now out of the hospital. "You feel powerless to do anything about it. I got out. But I know there are soldiers still dealing with the same problems."
Haley, one of the nation's busiest veterans hospitals and one of just five with a polytrauma center for the most critically wounded troops, has a severe nursing shortage that is endangering patients, according to the facility's nursing union, National Nurses United.
In February, the union filed a grievance against Haley saying the Department of Veterans Affairs facility wasn't following its own policy on maintaining adequate nurse staffing levels.
The facility needs to hire at least 200 nurses, and probably much more, to alleviate a shortage that impacts critically ill patients most, said Irma Westmoreland, the national chairwoman of NNU's VA unit.
"The nurses are working hundreds of hours of overtime," Westmoreland said. "They're exhausted and stressed out. There aren't enough hands to touch patients. It's very unsafe to have these folks do every single thing they're being asked to do."
Haley officials deny any nursing shortage. But Haley spokeswoman Karen Collins said the facility has pledged to hire eight to 10 nurses every two weeks until reaching "established staffing levels." An April 13 job fair also is planned.
Asked why Haley was hiring more nurses if a shortage did not exist, Collins said an internal study conducted to "right size our organization" set new staffing levels for all hospital services.
In March 2012, Collins said, the facility had 1,204 nurses. This month, she said, the figure is 1,184.
But the hospital, whose director is Kathleen Fogarty, did not respond when asked what Haley considers an adequate nurse staffing level.
Westmoreland, who said it isn't clear why Haley isn't hiring enough nurses, said the numbers provided by Haley are inaccurate. "I don't know where they have these nurses at," she said. "They certainly aren't touching patients."
She said Haley last week had approximately 800 nurses on staff compared with about 1,000 in November 2012.
Other factors appear to suggest staffing problems at Haley.
The Tampa Bay Times confirmed that Haley, the first VA hospital ever recognized as a Magnet center of nursing excellence in 2001, is losing the designation later this year.
Collins, the Haley spokeswoman, said the hospital decided not to reapply for the prestigious recognition.
"Nursing staff levels did not directly impact our decision about seeking Magnet re-designation," she said.
Instead, she said, the group administering the Magnet award, the American Nurses Credentialing Center, changed selection criteria forcing Haley to compare itself to non-VA hospitals rather than internal VA benchmarks.
Center officials declined to comment, so Haley's explanation cannot be confirmed. And Haley employees say they are not allowed to speak to the media without approval.
The ANCC looks to numerous indicators in deciding whether to recognize a hospital, from clinical outcomes to staff morale, according to the group.
Magnet hospitals have lower death rates, happier patients and nurses and less nursing turnover than non-Magnet facilities, several studies have noted.
Holly Dillmann, whose husband was a spinal patient at Haley after being wounded by an improvised explosive device in 2011, said it is clear Haley is no longer a center of excellence.
Staffing problems, she said, need to be fixed to prevent other veterans from experiencing the nightmare her husband faced.
"The stress they put me under made it impossible for me to be there emotionally for my husband," said Dillmann. "I never want to think about that situation again."