New House bill targets VA recruitment, hiring challenges

Many federal agencies would argue they have plenty of challenges recruiting and hiring new talent.

But the sheer of number of vacancies within the Veterans Affairs Department is prompting specific action from the House VA Committee. Lawmakers are considering a bill that would the shorten the time it takes for the department to recruit and hire new employees.

VA has roughly 43,000 medical and health-related positions unfilled, Elias Hernandez, chief officer for workforce management and consulting at the Veterans Health Administration, told the House VA Health and Economic Opportunity Subcommittees at a legislative hearing March 16.

The VA had about 41,500 medical positions open as of last summer, said Rep. Beto O’Rouke (D-Texas).

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“We’re having a really hard time, not even treading water, but just not sinking altogether,” he said.

Hernandez said the exact number of vacancies is difficult to quantify, because the VA doesn’t have a position management system. The department is actively recruiting for about 37,176 positions.

The bill would amend Title 38 of the U.S. Code to let the VA secretary consider the private sector market, as well as the applicant’s experience and the complexity of the job or the hospital location before setting pay for a new medical professional. It also gives new workplace flexibilities for doctors or nurses — letting employees work more or less than 80 hours in a two-week period, as long as the individual’s total hours for the year does not exceed 2,080.

Other provisions would require the VA to create a single recruitment database for the entire department, as well as an executive management fellowship program. The VA would identify 30 employees annually and set them up with training and development opportunities in the private sector.

Though staffing shortages at VA medical centers might be dire, the department’s challenges to recruit new doctors and health care professionals mimic the struggles in the private sector, said Carolyn Clancy, VHA deputy undersecretary for health for organizational excellence.

Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, praised provisions that would let the VA secretary pay its medical and Veterans Integrated Service Network directors competitively with the private sector.

“Supporting market pay for your medical directors [is] really clearly very important,” he said. You’re not going to get the talent that you need in that area unless you do that. We would argue … that the pay system more generally in the federal workforce is broken. It was built in 1949. It’s all about internal equity when you had a clerical workforce. The whole thing should be based on market compensation.”

But Stier reminded the committee, “The problems that you’re addressing are actually problems that face the entire government.”

The untitled bill is still in the discussion phase, and the committee is waiting on more feedback from VA. The department commented on roughly half of the 16 provisions in the bill so far and plans to submit feedback on the remaining provisions “shortly,” Clancy told the committee.

“The legislation is a starter pistol,” Stier said. “It’s not the end of the day. You’ve given them tools, but I hope you’ll do oversight to make sure that they use the authority you’re providing them.”

The focus of the bill is a shift in tone from some of the conversations the committee has held in the past, which often focused on disciplinary problems among the department’s senior executives.

“I know this committee has focused heavily on accountability, and while I think it is of the utmost importance, it’s important that we also focus on the hiring and retention of high quality employees within the department so our veterans receive the best services possible,” House VA Subcommittee Chairman Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio) said.

The department’s recruitment and hiring challenges are the driving force behind the VA’s proposed changes to its Senior Executive Service, Secretary Bob McDonald told the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee March 15.

The committee is revising an omnibus package that would overhaul large portions of the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014. Reforms would change accountability procedures for Senior Executive Service members, as well as other changes to the disability appeals process.

The Senate committee wants to finalize the omnibus as early as April 1.

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