The Department of Veterans Affairs released eye-opening figures over the weekend showing that the VA had more than 45,000 full-time job vacancies -- thousands more than had previously been reported.
Under the new quarterly reporting requirements of the VA Mission Act, signed into law by President Donald Trump in June, the VA said that as of June 30 there were "45,239 overall vacancies at the department, out of a total of 419,353 full-time authorized and budgeted positions."
Previous estimates on job vacancies at the VA had put the total at about 35,000.
The vast majority of the vacancies were on the healthcare side of the department at the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), where there were 40,456 vacancies out of a total of 375,953 full-time, authorized and budgeted VHA positions, the VA said.
In addition, there were about 1,978 vacancies in the Veterans Benefits Administration, out of a total of 25,560 full-time positions; 233 in the National Cemetery Administration, out of a total of 2,179 positions; and 2,572 in staff offices out of a total of 15,661 positions, the VA said.
"President Trump has made it clear that achieving the optimal workforce at VA is a top priority as we look to provide the best care and benefits to our nation's heroes," VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said in a statement accompanying the release of the figures Sept. 1.
Wilkie did not describe what "optimal" meant in terms of hiring, but said his "priority has been to have a clear and accurate picture of our vacancies, and getting this information out publicly is an important step in transparency to veterans and taxpayers."
How many of the total vacancies would be filled was open to question in a Congress that has yet to appropriate funding for the VA Mission Act itself and in an administration that began its tenure with a job freeze aimed at trimming the federal workforce.
However, members of Congress from both sides of the aisle have repeatedly pressed the VA to speed up hirings.
At a hearing of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee in January, then-VA Secretary Dr. David Shulkin, who was fired by Trump in March, said that the latest figures from October 2017 showed that there were 35,345 full-time job vacancies at the VA.
He had previously said that filling the vacancies was the "single most challenging thing" holding up progress at the VA.
Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Georgia, the Committee's chairman, told Shulkin "there are no excuses for why we don't correct the problems we've had hiring."
In the release Sept. 1, the VA said that its current workforce stands at about 374,000, the largest in federal government after the Defense Department.
From the start of Fiscal Year 2014 to the end of Fiscal 2017, VA achieved a job growth rate of 12.5 percent but that was offset by a job turnover rate of 9.2 percent.
However, the VA said that its turnover rate was better than other cabinet-level departments, which averaged a turnover rate of 11 percent in Fiscal 2017.
Hiring, particularly for the VHA, has been made more difficult by the "national shortage of healthcare professionals, especially for physicians and nurses," that has been noted by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing and the Association of American Medical Colleges, the VA said.
The VA cited a number of initiatives to boost hiring including, targeted nationwide recruitment advertising and marketing; the "Take A Closer Look at VA" trainee outreach recruitment program; expanding opportunities for telemedicine providers; and coordination with the Defense Department to recruit transitioning service members.
Under the VA Mission Act, the VA also has new authority to offer recent medical school graduates loan repayment opportunities in exchange for service in VA Medical Centers through the Specialty Education Loan Repayment Program (SELRP).
In the release, the VA stressed that job vacancies should not be equated with performance.
"The best indicators of adequate staffing levels include veteran access to care and health care outcomes -- not vacancies," the VA said.
One indicator, cited was the statistic for Fiscal Year 2018 showing that 21 percent of all appointments have been completed the same day that the appointment was requested.
Another indicator was the reduction in the average time it took to complete an urgent referral to a specialist from 19.3 days in FY 2014 to 3.2 days in FY 2017 and 2.0 days in FY 2018. In July, the number was down to 1.3 days, the VA said.
The VA also made the oft-repeated claim, backed up by outside studies, that "veterans receive the same or better care at VA medical centers as patients at non-VA hospitals."
The VA said that there was a variation in performance from one VA Medical Center to the next, but added that "the variation was even wider among non-VA hospitals."
"Despite a challenging and ultra-competitive market for filling healthcare positions across the country, VA has worked with Congress and other key stakeholders to deploy a number of new and important tools to help us reduce our vacancies," Wilkie said. "We are always looking for new ways to recruit high-quality talent, and will continue to do everything we can to provide the best quality care for our nation's veterans," he said.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.