VA’s historic hiring surge leads to all-time record for veteran care and benefits

The Department of Veterans Affairs says major hiring efforts across the department allowed it to set all-time records for providing health care and benefits to ...

The Department of Veterans Affairs says major hiring efforts across the department allowed it to set all-time records for providing health care and benefits to veterans.

The VA surged its hiring last year to stay ahead of demand under the PACT Act. The 2022 law expands health care and benefits for veterans exposed to toxic substances during their military service.

VA leaders across the department told reporters on Friday the department will keep growing its workforce to keep pace with demand from an aging veteran population.

This year’s hiring efforts, however, aren’t expected to be quite as dramatic as the volume of hires VA made in FY 2023.

VA Secretary Denis McDonough said in a statement Monday that the department is “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,” McDonough said.

McDonough, speaking at the National Press Club on Monday, said “VA’s people keep our promise to vets.” 

“From ending veteran homelessness to delivering toxic-exposure benefits, none of this happens without the best federal workforce in the federal government,” McDonough said. “We owe it to them to have a workforce sized to meet this mission.”

The VA provided more than 116 million health care appointments to veterans and their survivors in FY 2023 — more than 3 million appointments past its previous record.

Under Secretary for Health Shereef Elnahal said the VA delivered more appointments to veterans in FY 2023 than any other year in its history, and is “commensurate with the increased demand that veterans are demanding of us to deliver more care.”

“We’ve been able to deliver more care than ever, and that is because we’ve hired more people than we ever have,” Elnahal said.

The Veterans Health Administration far exceeded its hiring goals for FY 2023, and saw its highest rate of workforce growth in more than 15 years.

VHA now has a total workforce of more than 408,000 employees, its largest-ever headcount.

Elnahal said VHA is still finalizing its hiring goals for FY 2024, but said its targets probably won’t be as high as the 61,000 employees it brought on board last year.

“We know that it’s extremely important for us to continue hiring, especially to keep up with attrition, and especially to keep up with veteran demand. But the total number of hires will be less of a focus this year,” he said.

Elnahal said VHA in FY 2024 is looking at “more targeted hiring goals,” focused on addressing a shortage of mental health care professionals.

The U.S. faces a nationwide shortage of mental health care professionals, but Elnahal said VHA will expand its training programs to meet its targets.

“We’re actually not going to accept the limitation of the current number of mental health providers, and just say that’s going to be our cap,” Elnahal said. “Part of it is hiring folks already available in the market. And part of it is continuing to invest in ourselves as the country’s premier training institutions for the best clinicians.”

VHA saw a 6.5% increase in mental health care appointments last year. That includes in-person and telehealth appointments.

Even with more modest hiring goals in FY 2024, Elnahal said VHA expects to serve an even greater number of veterans next year.

“I do think we’re only beginning to see the potential on increasing volume of care with those increased FTE numbers,” Elnahal said. “We know that folks do take some time to get acclimated and become fully productive. And so, I think there’s a lot of room for us to grow our volume even more, with the employees we already have on board.”

VA under the PACT Act screened 4.6 million veterans for toxic exposure. Elnahal called that “a critical step to catching and treating potentially life-threatening health conditions associated with toxic-substance exposure.”

VHA is also looking to shorten the time it takes to fill vacant positions.

Elnahal said the agency is taking more than 160 days to fill a position once it becomes vacant. He said VHA is looking to cut that time-to-fill window by at least a month across the VA health care system.

“Planning for that is underway and execution will follow shortly after that. But that’s going to be a very specific and important goal to reduce and alleviate that pain point,” he said.

The Veterans Benefits Administration grew its workforce by 20% to a 32,000-employee workforce in FY 2023. Under Secretary for Benefits Joshua Jacobs said VBA will keep adding to its headcount this year.

“Our ability to deliver more benefits to more veterans than any other time in history is in part due to our massive hiring surge,” Jacobs said.

Jacobs said VBA is “actively continuing to hire more in the coming year,” and plans to grow its workforce to 36,000 employees by the end of FY 2024.

We’re continuing to recruit for talented new VBA colleagues, working to get them interviewed, onboarded, trained and proficient, so that they can join this incredible mission to deliver for veterans, families and survivors,” he said.

Beyond hiring, Jacobs said VBA is looking to accelerate its use of automated decision support tools, “so that our employees have more tools to deliver decisions more quickly, accurately and equitably than ever before.”

“We have a plan that is going to enable us to continue delivering more benefits to more veterans than ever before,” he added.

VBA processed 1.98 million disability benefits claims from veterans and their survivors — a nearly 16% increase from the year prior. VBA issued $163 billion in total benefits in FY 2023.

VBA has received more than a million PACT Act-related claims in FY 2023, and granted nearly 80% of those claims.

The agency is already seeing a greater workload for FY 2024. Jacobs said that VBA so far this year has completed 25% more claims than it did for the same period last year.

VBA  is also following some of VHA’s best practices to improve retention and reduce burnout — the goals of VHA’s REBOOT task force.

Jacobs said VBA is looking to tap into some of the lessons learned from VHA’s REBOOT task force “and make sure that we can apply any relevant lessons learned to our workforce.”

The National Cemetery Administration laid to rest more than 38,000 veterans in FY 2023. For 94% of veterans, the NCA provided burial options within 75 miles of where they live — just 1% shy of NCA’s goal.

Under Secretary for Memorial Affairs Matthew Quinn said NCA continues to “hold very steady with the hiring and retention of our employees.”

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