In an intensive push to fill acute workforce shortages, the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is holding a “national onboarding surge event” the week of November 14. The goal is to get people who have already said yes to a job in the VA on that job more quickly. Every VA facility has been asked to submit a list of the highest-priority candidates, regardless of the position.
One of the most pressing reasons for getting more workers into the pipeline faster is that more and more veterans are entering VA care. As of October 1, tens of thousands of veterans will be eligible for VA health care, thanks to the Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act of 2022 (PACT Act), passed in August, which expanded benefits for post-9/11 service members with illnesses due to toxic exposures.
Another reason is the need to fill the gaps left by attrition. In an October 19 press briefing, VA Undersecretary for Health Shereef Elnahal said the agency needs to hire about 52,000 employees per year just to keep up with the rate of health care professionals (HCPs) leaving the agency. At a September breakfast meeting with the Defense Writers Group, VA Secretary Denis McDonough said July 2022 marked the first month this year that the VA hired more nurses than it lost to retirement. He said the VA needs to hire 45,000 nurses over the next 3 years to keep up with attrition and growing demand for veteran care.
“We have to do a better job on hiring,” McDonough said. Streamlining the process is a major goal. Hiring rules loosened during the pandemic have since tightened back up. He pointed out that in many cases, the VA takes 90 to 100 days to onboard candidates and called the long-drawn-out process “being dragged through a bureaucratic morass.” During that time, he said, “They’re not being paid, they’re filling out paperwork… That’s disastrous.” In his press briefing, Elnahal said “we lose folks after we’ve made the selection” because the process is so long.
Moreover, the agency has a critical shortage not only of HCPs but the human resources professionals needed to fast-track the hirees’ progress. McDonough called it a “supply chain issue.” “We have the lowest ratio of human resource professionals per employee in the federal government by a long shot.” Partly, he said, because “a lot of our people end up hired away to other federal agencies.”
McDonough said the VA is also interested in transitioning more active-duty service members with in-demand skills, certifications, and talent into the VA workforce. “Cross-walking active duty into VA service much more aggressively,” he said, is another way to “grow that supply of ready, deployable, trained personnel.” The PACT Act gives the VA new incentives to entice workers, such as expanded recruitment, retention bonuses, and student loan repayment. The VA already provides training to about 1500 nurse and nurse residency programs across the VA, McDonough said but has plans for expanding to 5 times its current scope. He also addressed the question of a looming physician shortage: “Roughly 7 in 10 doctors in the United States will have had some portion of their training in a VA facility. We have to maintain that training function going forward.” The VA trains doctors, he added, “better than anybody else.”
The onboarding event will serve as a “national signal that we take this priority very seriously,” Elnahal said. “This will be not only a chance to have a step function improvement in the number of folks on board, which is an urgent priority, but to also set the groundwork for the more longitudinal work that we will need to do to improve the hiring process.”
Bulking up the workforce, he said, is “still far and away among our first priorities. Because if we don’t get our hospitals and facility staffed, it’s going to be a really hard effort to make process on the other priorities.”