The Veterans Health Administration far exceeded its hiring goals for fiscal 2023, and is retaining health care workers at levels it hasn’t seen since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
VHA, however still faces shortages of health care workers in rural areas, as well as a shortage of mental health care professionals across the country, and will focus its hiring efforts on filling those gaps later this year.
VHA grew its workforce by 7.4% in fiscal 2023 – more than double its 3% goal for FY 2023 – and saw a net increase of 28,233 new employees.
Under Secretary for Health Shereef Elnahal said the agency in FY 2023 saw its highest rate of workforce growth in more than 15 years.
“We now have more end strength than we’ve ever had,” Elnahal told reporters on Monday. VHA now has more than 400,000 supporting health care staff across the VA medical system.
VHA hired 61,239 total employees last fiscal year – well above its 52,000-employee goal.
Elnahal said the VHA set ambitious hiring goals for FY 2023 to keep up with the growing demand for VA health care under the PACT Act. The legislation expands health care and benefits eligibility for veterans exposed to toxic substances during their military service.
VA is also expanding its health care workforce to provide for a veteran population that is aging faster than the general U.S. population.
“We knew that the end strength needs would be significant. Our most important asset is our people, and the most important way we build capacities is by bringing on even more excellent clinicians, and staff will help us execute the mission on behalf of veterans,” Elnahal said.
The PACT Act, however, also gives the VA additional recruiting and retention tools. They include higher limits for student loan repayments; recruitment, relocation and retention incentives and eliminating statutory limits on awards and bonuses.
Elnahal said those PACT Act incentives have been a “major boon to our overall hiring efforts,” and that VISNs have been making use of these authorities.
“There was no need for us to force the use of these authorities. Our field leaders found that exceptionally useful to meet our hiring goals,” Elnahal said.
VHA also retained employees better in fiscal 2023 than in recent years. The agency saw a 7.8% loss rate of employees in FY 2023 – compared to a 9.8% loss rate for FY 2022-2O21.
Elnahal said VHA is retaining employees at levelsit has notseensincethe start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
VHA hired 34,523newemployees in its “bigseven” occupations – including physicians,nurses,licensedpracticalnursesorLPNnursingassistants,medicalsupportassistantswhodoscheduling,foodserviceworkersand housekeepingaids.
Elnahal said each individual VA medical center and Veterans Integrated Services Network (VISN) will set their own hiring targets for fiscal 2024, “some of which may still be quite aggressive, based on where they are specifically in their markets.”
More broadly, Elnahal said VHA is setting goals for positions that are in short supply in almost every VA location. That includes mental health professionals, such as psychiatrists and behavioral health nurse practitioners.
“We’re going to be still recruiting aggressively and focusing much more strategically on that cohort,” Elnahal said.
VHA is also taking steps to hire more HR professionals to lead hiring and recruitment efforts.
The agency hired 1,358 new HR specialists and 366 HR assistants in FY 2023, and is training a new cohort of HR professionals.
The VA, through its HR STAR program, is hiring recent graduates to enroll in a year of VA-specific HR training. The program, which began 13 months ago, saw its first cohort graduate this month.
“VA has a lot of unique hiring authorities that HR specialists, even in other federal agencies, by definition are not familiar with when they come in here,” Elnahal said. “And so, because of that, we have to employ very specific training.”
David Perry, VHA’s chief officer for workforce management and consulting, said the HR STAR training is a mix of self-paced and instructor coursework tailored to help them understand the “nuts andboltsofwhatittakestoactuallybeanHRspecialistinVHA,whichisunlikeanywhereelseinthefederalgovernment.”
“That year of training is paramount for us to make sure that our staff , when we deploy them out to their future homes out in the field understand all the technical challenges in the way our systems work, to make sure that we’re bringing a well-trained and competent workforce to deliver care to our veterans,” Perry said.
Perry said VHA plans to have a graduating cohort complete the HR-STAR program each month.
VHA is placing the HR-STAR graduates into the VISNs with the greatest need for HR help.