McDonald: VA Plans a Healthcare Hiring Spree

VA Secretary Robert McDonald speaks at a news conference at the Veterans Affairs Department in Washington, Monday, Sept. 8, 2014. McDonald discussed his visits at VA facilities across the country and outlined his priorities.Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
VA Secretary Robert McDonald speaks at a news conference at the Veterans Affairs Department in Washington, Monday, Sept. 8, 2014. Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

The Department of Veterans Affairs is looking to fill "tens of thousands" of jobs as quickly as possible to meet the healthcare needs of veterans, VA Secretary Bob McDonald said on Tuesday.

VA officials should know by the end of this year, or early 2015, how many clinical and support staff it must hire, though it has been working with the figure of 28,000 vacancies since July, when then-acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson raised the employment picture to Congress.

The total includes current vacancies as well as new positions.

"Including clinicians and other employees, we're in the process of going through a big recruiting effort," McDonald told the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.

Though McDonald did not have the worked-out estimates on hand, he said the percentage of new doctors needed is not as high as expected. He also said that the "number one specialty we've hired [over the past eight years] is nurses."

"We want to get as many people on board as possible ... as quickly as we can," he told reporters following the hearing before the Senate.

One of his priorities now is to get new VA doctors interested in coming to the VA, something he began working on in August.

Though most of the month was spent meeting with VA medical center officials, employees and union representatives, as well as veterans and members of veterans service organizations, to talk about the ongoing wait-times scandal, he also visited medical schools to pitch the VA as a career option.

These included the medical schools at Duke University and the University of Pennsylvania, where he met with hundreds of instructors, administrators and students.

McDonald said he believes students will be interested when they see what the VA has to offer in terms of scientific accomplishment, research facilities and state-of-the-art equipment.

There is also help with the medical school costs incurred by students, including the Education Debt Reduction Program, which reimburses tuition costs up to $120,000 over five years, and the Student Loan Repayment Program, which pays lending institution student loans of up to $10,000 per year, with a lifetime cap of $60,000.

One tough selling point that remains is compensation.

"We're now uncompetitive in many specialties," he said, but that is going to change. "It's within my authority to do. I've talked to members of Congress. I've talked to the president. We're going to be raising ... the salary band."

This does not mean a salary increase for everyone, he said, but a higher salary ceiling within specialties.

"Depending on the person's performance, they can qualify for that," he said.

-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at bryant.jordan@monster.com.

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