The Veterans Health Administration is looking to exceed its year-end hiring goals, during a year in which the agency already broke records to grow its workforce.
Undersecretary for Health Shereef Elnahal told reporters Tuesday that the VHA in July surpassed 400,000 employees for the first time in the agency’s history.
“There has never been a period of time in VA history where the health care system has had this many employees. That 400,000 threshold is a first,” Elnahal said.
VHA set a goal of growing its workforce by 3% this fiscal year, but Elnahal said the agency is already seeing a 5.5% rate of workforce growth so far this fiscal year, and may actually double its goal by Sept. 30.
“We’re really proud of these hiring results. We’re not stopping, especially until we reach the 52,000 external hire goal for this year,” Elnahal said. “We’re working as hard as we can not only to bring more folks on board, but to improve the hiring process itself.”
VHA has made 48,505 external hires so far this fiscal year, about 93% of its 52,000-employee hiring goal. Elnahal said the agency 52,000 employee hiring goal accounts for the agency’s expected level of attrition and retirement.
VHA is staying on track with its hiring goals, but is also exceeding its goals to retain employees already on the job. Elnahal said these trends are reshaping the agency’s hiring goals for fiscal 2024.
“We will still be on a hiring agenda next fiscal year, given the expected increases in demand that we will see, both because of the PACT Act, and because the average age of veterans we serve is going up,” he said. “And with age, of course, comes comorbidities and incidents of disease that requires clinical care.”
While VHA is meeting its overall hiring goals, the agency is still falling short on hiring targets for housekeeping aides, nursing assistants and licensed practical nurses (LPNs).
Elnahal said the agency is trying to make full use of its PACT Act authorities, as well as special salary rates and critical skills incentives to attract more candidates, but said VHA remains “overall short of our goals in those areas.”
“There will likely be many other types of jobs that we target our hiring efforts around. So it’s really more around refining the types of folks we want to hire, and that will factor into our goals for next year,” he said.
VHA is also using its authority to offer critical skills incentives to recruit more human resources personnel. Elnahal said the incentive for HR professionals amounts to 25% of their base salary.
VHA is recruiting HR professionals as part of broader reforms to its hiring and onboarding processes. The agency in June saw a median time-to-fill of 160 days.
“We want as many HR specialists in our system as possible. That will only help reduce times to onboard and hire employees, which is really the main challenge that we’re faced with right now,” Elnahal said.
VHA announced in June that it is training HR specialists at Veterans Integrated Services Networks (VISNs) and hiring managers at medical centers on tools that will help them pinpoint where prospective employees are within the hiring and onboarding process, allowing them to expedite the process.
VHA is also now using USA Staffing, the Office of Personnel Management’s own talent acquisition systems available across much of the federal workforce.
Elnahal said each VISN will use USA Staffing to track where prospective employees are in the hiring and onboarding process.
VHA is looking to put most of its PACT Act recruitment and retention incentives to use by the end of this year, and fully implement them by next year.
The PACT Act, signed into law more than a year ago, marks the largest expansion of VA benefits and health care in a generation, and will assist veterans exposed to toxic substances during their military service.
Eligible veterans who left the military between Sept. 11, 2001, and Oct. 1, 2013, have until Sept. 30 to enroll. Ahead of that deadline, VHA is stress-testing its website to make a potential surge in web traffic doesn’t exceed the sites’s capacity.
Elnahal said the VA is going through an after-action “hotwash” to understand what happened to VA.gov when it received a surge in claims ahead of an Aug. 9 deadline to receive backdated PACT Act benefits. In light of those technical challenges, VA extended the backdated benefits deadline to Aug. 14.
“The good news is that our capacity for the website on applying for health care, at least up front, seems to be more than enough to account for the estimated denominator of folks who would qualify for the special one-year special enrollment period,” he said.
Elnahal said the most important metric for success is seeing “demonstrable improvements from what our end-users say about the usability of the system,” and that VHA will continue to survey employees at sites already using the Oracle-Cerner EHR.
“It’s important to make sure that we have a significant presence at each of the five sites — both in-person and virtually — to get faster ticket response times and make sure that the configuration changes we need are happening quickly,” he said.