VA seeks to manage size of its health care workforce, keeps growing benefits staffing

VA officials say the department this year is focused on increasing veteran access to VA care using mostly the health care workforce it already has, "rather than...

The Department of Veterans Affairs saw record hiring last year. Now it’s looking to manage the size of its largest-ever health care workforce, while continuing to hire more staff to process benefits claims.

VA officials say the department this year is focused on increasing veteran access to VA care using mostly the health care workforce it already has, “rather than on nationwide growth in total employees.”

The Veteran Health Administration exceeded many of its hiring goals in fiscal 2023, and now has its largest-ever headcount. VA’s major hiring last year allowed it to set an all-time record for providing health care and benefits to veterans.

The VA has been staffing up to handle increased demand under the PACT Act. The 2022 law expands VA health care and benefits eligibility for veterans exposed to toxic substances during their military service.

VA Secretary Denis McDonough told reporters Tuesday that the Veterans Benefits Administration is still hiring to grow its workforce, but “as it relates to VHA, there may be times when we determine that there are personnel that we don’t need going forward.”

“We’re going to continue to hire on the VBA side, to meet the demands of this historic level of claims filed. But on VHA, it will be more targeted hiring,” McDonough said at a press conference at VA’s headquarters.

McDonough said he’s been in talks with House and Senate lawmakers about the VA’s ability to grow its workforce to keep up with demand under the PACT Act. He said he expects VHA to manage its headcount as employees retire or leave the agency.

“We think that we can manage this through attrition, and this will be something that we work through,” McDonough said.

VA Press Secretary Terrence Hayes told Federal News Network in a statement that VHA now has more than 400,000 employees for the first time in its history, and that efforts to boost retention have led to a 20% decrease in turnover between 2022 and 2023.

“Because of this, we are now primarily focused on increasing access to VA care that meets veterans where they are, rather than on nationwide growth in total employees on board,” Hayes said.

The department, Hayes added, is working with local VA leaders to make sure they have the staff they need to serve veterans, and that local leaders “are empowered to make decisions at the local level about their ongoing hiring actions.”

“If we no longer need to fill a position in a certain location, we will look to place any affected individuals in another position at VA if at all possible,” Hayes said.

Under Secretary for Benefits, Joshua Jacobs told reporters on Jan. 17 that VBA is looking to grow its total workforce from 32,000 to nearly 36,000 employees this year.

VBA is looking to make these hires to keep breaking new records for the total number of benefits claims it processes each year.

VBA completed nearly 2 million claims in fiscal 2023, breaking its earlier record of 1.7 million claims in FY 2022.

As of Jan. 14, VBA completed more than 650,000 claims — 34% more claims than at the same point in fiscal year 2023.

McDonough said VBA  processed more than 10,000 claims each day last week, and that the agency is driving down a backlog that VA officials projected last year would peak at 450,000 to 700,000 claims by this summer.

‘We were warning that the inventory was going to be increasing. That inventory is now coming down. The most important thing we can do is effectively process those claims in a timely way and a high-quality way,” he said.

To keep up with unprecedented growth in demand for VA health care under the PACT Act,  VHA is running “access sprints” to increase appointment availability across three areas of care — cardiology, mental health and gastroenterology.

Hayes said 78% of VA medical centers are already seeing higher completed new patient volume year-over-year, and that the VA has provided 11% more appointments in specialty care, compared to the same period last year.

“When we’re well-staffed like this, we’re going to see engagements with veterans increase,” McDonough said. “Where we continue to need to hire, we’ll make sure that we have the resources to do that.”

Congress is still working on a comprehensive spending plan for the rest of fiscal 2024, but McDonough said the VA will have the funding it needs to hire and retain employees.

“I feel like we have the funding that we need to carry out the priorities that we have. We did just have a great hiring year, and so I think we’re going to be focused very aggressively on execution with those new hires.”

McDonough said the VA is also making full use of two pay incentives that are unique to VA and not seen elsewhere in the federal government.

The VA now can offer a critical skill incentive (CSI) to employees with skills that are in high demand, or in short supply at the department, and serve a “mission-related need.”

The VA implemented a Special Salary Rate for IT and cybersecurity employees last summer and approved an SSR for VHA human resources employees at the end of December 2023.

“We’re really proud of the fact that we got it in the PACT Act. We’re also very mindful of the fact that nobody else in the federal government has gotten it,” McDonough said. “So how we use it is going to determine whether our other colleagues in the federal government can get it.”

A small percentage of those critical skill incentives, however, went to career senior executives at VA headquarters. The VA announced in September that it canceled nearly $10 million of these bonuses to VA executives who were found to be ineligible for the awards.

McDonough said the VA has asked its inspector general’s office to look into how those bonuses were awarded.

“We just want to make sure now we’re just very assiduous about investing in our people, keeping our people identifying places where we’re short,” he said.

VA leaders to hold ‘stand down’ amid sexual harassment probe

The VA, meanwhile, plans to provide House lawmakers with its final report on its internal investigation of sexual harassment allegations by the end of the month.

The House VA Committee on Jan. 11 issued a subpoena demanding more documents and records from the VA’s internal investigation to allegations of sexual harassment at VA’s Office of Resolution Management, Diversity & Inclusion (ORMDI).

VA employees who contacted the committee claimed they received explicit text messages from ORMDI leaders, and facing retaliation in the workplace for turning down their advances.

“We do not tolerate sexual harassment. We do not tolerate sexual assault. We do not tolerate any disrespectful behavior of our veterans, or of our colleagues. And when we identify that kind of behavior, we’re going to have zero tolerance for it,” McDonough told reporters. “The relationship we have with veterans and the relationship we have with our colleagues is one built on trust —and we want to earn trust.”

McDonough said Cassandra Law, VA’s new Assistant Secretary for the Office of Human Resources and Administration/Operations, Security, and Preparedness, ordered a review of all VA training materials on sexual assault, sexual harassment and bystander training to “make sure it’s up to snuff.”

McDonough said Law has also ordered all component heads at VA’s Central Office, as well as at VHA, VBA and the National Cemetery Administration, to participate in a “stand down” on sexual assault and harassment claims in the workplace, “so that we can remind ourselves of that culture of non-tolerance of such activity.”

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