The Department of Veterans Affairs set records in multiple areas this past fiscal year -- a pace officials say they hope to continue in 2024 with targeted hiring for high-demand jobs, it announced Monday.
The Veterans Health Administration, the VA's medical services arm, oversaw 116 million medical appointments in fiscal 2023, a 2.7% increase from the record set in fiscal 2022. And the Veterans Benefits Administration, which handles VA disability compensation and benefits, paid out $150 billion in compensation and benefits to 1.5 million veterans and survivors, a 39% increase, and processed nearly 2 million disability claims, up nearly 16%.
"We at VA are proud of the care and benefits we provided these heroes during 2023, but we're not stopping here. We won't rest until every veteran gets the care and benefits they deserve," VA Secretary Denis McDonough said in a statement Monday.
Officials said that the hiring effort they embarked on in fiscal 2023 was largely responsible for the department's ability to provide expanded services. The VHA hired more than 61,000 new employees, surpassing its goal of 52,000 by nearly 10,000 and increasing its workforce to more than 400,000 for the first time ever.
Under Secretary for Health Dr. Shereef Elnahal said the VHA plans to continue hiring for fiscal 2024, but the total number will be "less of a focus" as he seeks to prevent attrition and burnout in critical areas where the department is still struggling to fill the ranks, including licensed practical nurses, nursing assistants, medical support assistants and mental health professionals.
And, he added, the VHA will continue to meet demand as its new hires get more comfortable with their jobs.
"I think there's a lot of room for us to grow our volume even more with the employees we already have on board," Elnahal said during a call with reporters Friday.
Under Secretary for Benefits Joshua Jacobs said that the Veterans Benefits Administration grew its workforce by more than 20%, which helped it process record numbers of disability claims and appeals, surpassing its old record by 8.3%, and also has turned to technology and process improvements as well as automation to speed decisions.
"So as we're focused on hiring, we're also focused on supporting the employees that are in our workforce through retention efforts to bring in new tools and through addressing issues associated with burnout," Jacobs said during the press call Friday.
The jump in demand can largely be attributed to the PACT Act, which extended health care and benefits to a potential pool of roughly 5 million veterans. According to the VA, it has approved more than a half-million PACT Act claims and screened nearly 4.6 million veterans to determine whether they believe they were exposed to environmental toxins while serving on active duty.
Elnahal said that, in addition to increasing the volume of patients who have received medical treatment through the VA, its health facilities have received high marks for quality and patient experience.
For the first time ever, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, a federal agency in the Department of Health and Human Services, included the VA in its hospital ratings in fiscal 2023, giving 67% of VA medical centers either four or five out of five stars, compared with roughly 48% of civilian hospitals.
VA patients also have given 72% of VA medical centers four or five stars, Elnahal added.
"We're really proud of those results because they reflect first and foremost the trust that veterans have in the care that we offer," Elnahal said. "But especially the overall hospital quality star rating is very comprehensive. It includes patient safety indicators."
Also in fiscal 2023, the VA provided services and resources to 74,270 family caregivers, although Elnahal did not provide details on the type or scope of services provided, including any data or progress on the Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers, which remains under review as the department assesses eligibility for the program.
The VA also saw an increase in mental health appointments and support, managing 6.5% more mental health appointments than the previous record and receiving more than 1 million calls, text messages and chats on the Veterans Crisis Line, an increase of 15.1%.
– Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com.