Veterans Health System Surpasses 400K Employees as Record Hiring Continues

The exterior of the Veterans Affairs Department hospital in Denver
The exterior of the Veterans Affairs Department hospital is shown in east Denver Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2017. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

The Veterans Health Administration has added nearly 49,000 new employees this fiscal year as demand spikes amid a deluge of claims and new enrollment from the PACT Act.

It is closing in on a total goal of 52,000 hires by Sept. 30. The majority are in occupations that Under Secretary for Health Dr. Shereef Elnahal calls the "Big Seven" -- jobs that directly affect patient care and services, including physicians, nurses, licensed practical nurses, nursing assistants, medical support, food service workers and housekeepers.

During a roundtable with reporters Tuesday, Elnahal said the VHA has hired 27,296 employees in those positions with an end goal of 30,000, part of the total 52,000 amount for the fiscal year.

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"I'm really proud of all of our network leaders and medical center directors for executing on this, and we're working as hard as we can not only to bring more folks on board, but to improve the hiring process itself," Elnahal said during the roundtable.

The VA embarked on a hiring spree last year to accommodate increased demand related to the PACT Act, which expanded benefits and health care services to combat veterans across several generations.

A PACT Act provision gave veterans who had never enrolled in VA health care; served in a theater of operations after Nov. 11, 1998; and were discharged or released between Sept. 11, 2001, and Oct. 1, 2013, a special one-year window to enroll in VA health care.

As a result, 113,719 additional veterans have signed up, with more expected by the deadline of Sept. 30.

To ensure that the VA hospitals and clinics could handle the influx of new patients, it aimed to hire 52,000 employees during fiscal 2023, the highest growth for the administration in 20 years.

The VA health care system provided more than 91 million outpatient appointments to 9 million veterans enrolled in VA care last year, according to the agency.

While many of the new employees will provide care and services within VA medical centers and clinics, some of the Big Seven employees -- medical support assistants -- have been hired to support the department's community care program, which allows veterans to receive care from non-VA providers when treatment is not available at a VA facility or the wait times for appointments are too long.

Elnahal said that the VHA, the part of the VA that runs its nationwide network of health care facilities, is ahead of schedule for hiring those personnel, who oversee schedules and coordinate appointments and services with the community care network, although he did not provide exact numbers.

Despite the successful hiring effort, the administration is struggling to hire nursing assistants, licensed practical nurses and housekeeping aides, Elnahal said. The department is using allowances under the PACT act to provide recruitment and retention inducements and critical skills incentives to be more competitive but remains "overall short of our goals in those areas," he added.

The VA also continues to wrestle with the length of time it takes to hire employees and prepare them for work -- the onboarding process that entails paperwork, background checks and other human resources requirements before a person can start work.

In June, the median onboarding time was 160 days, according to the VA.

"That's, obviously, way too long," Elnahal said. He added that the department has taken measures such as implementing USA Staffing, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management’s talent acquisition system, to monitor hiring packages and streamlining its hiring process to help reduce the wait.

In January, the Government Accountability Office found that regional and medical VA facility staff did not always input complete data in the USA Staffing system, leaving questions of whether the VA was onboarding new employees at its highest efficiency.

The GAO recommended that all offices comply with the requirements of the USA Staffing system and ensure that employees received guidance on its use. The VA concurred with the recommendations and has started to implement them.

-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Follow her on Twitter and Threads @patriciakime.

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