VA brings employees back to the office, but envisions hybrid workplace for eligible staff

The Veterans Affairs Department is the latest agency to bring its workforce back to the office, but is envisioning a hybrid workplace in the coming months to improve recruitment and retention.

Deputy VA Secretary Donald Remy said Tuesday that the VA brought non-bargaining unit employees back to the office last week. The agency, he added, expects bargaining unit employees to return to the office by May.

The office reentry affects only a portion of the VA’s total workforce. Remy said nearly 80% of its employees stayed “right on the front lines” since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, providing health care to patients and administering services at national cemeteries.

The return to the office, however, isn’t a return to pre-pandemic business as usual.  Remy said the VA plans to transition to a hybrid workplace environment over the next several months.

“The hybrid work environment will allow for people to use telework arrangements so that they only have to come into the office to set number of days during the week. We’ll create a structure that assures that we’re getting the work done, as we have through the entire pandemic,” Remy said during a press conference at the agency’s headquarters.

Remy said the VA has “dramatically increased telework opportunities” as part of its plans for a hybrid workforce, said the agency views workplace flexibility as a key tool to improve recruitment and retention.

“We’ll be transitioning to the future of work over the next several months, establishing a new normal at VA that will help keep the best employees at VA, bring the best employees to VA and most of all, make sure all of those employees are safe at VA,” Remy said.

VA seeks higher pay caps for physicians, hospital CEOs

VA leadership, meanwhile, thanked Congress for passing the RAISE Act as part of the fiscal 2022 omnibus spending package. The legislation sets higher pay caps for VA’s registered nurses and physician assistants.

“The RAISE Act empowers us to invest in our employees and pay nurses and physician assistants every penny they’re worth, helping us recruit, retain, relocate our employees in this very competitive labor market. We’ve got a lot more to do to invest in our workforce, but this is a big step forward, and it’ll make a real difference,” Remy said.

The bill’s author, Rep. Lauren Underwood (D-Ill.) said in a statement Monday that the legislation will allow the VA “to pay providers competitive salaries to ensure veterans have access to high-quality care.”

That legislation, however, is just the start of the VA’s workforce-related requests for Congress.

VA Secretary Denis McDonough said he’s asking lawmakers to raise the cap on retention and relocation bonuses, and is urging Congress to pass legislation that would raise pay caps for VA physicians and hospital chief executive officers.

“This is something that we should not be laboring under, if we want VA to be competitive,” McDonough said.

McDonough said VA hospital CEOs are paid wages not just below what they could make in the private sector, but are often capped at pay below what some of the VA’s highest-paid clinicians earn.

McDonough said the VA also needs to look at addressing unnecessary wage and grade differentials across its facilities. He said therapists working in VA vet centers, for example, are capped at a GS-11 pay scale, while employees doing the same work at VA medical centers are paid at a GS-12 level.

“Naturally, there’s a lot of progression from vet centers to med centers. The question we need to ask ourselves is, is that right? Or is there some regularization across the VA system that we ought to be doing,” McDonough said.

As for the agency’s future workforce needs, McDonough said stressed that the VA’s recommendations to the Asset and Infrastructure Review (AIR) Commission are focused on building up the VA workforce, not downsizing it.

The agency, under this plan, is looking to close approximately three dozen VA medical centers (VAMCs), but would replace about half of them with new construction. The VA would permanently close the other half and would shift veteran care to local VA inpatient and outpatient facilities.

McDonough said the VA briefed employees about the AIR Commission recommendations prior to their public release last week.

“We wanted to make sure our workforce understands that this is a plan to invest in the kind of facilities that they ought to be working in, and the kind of circumstances they ought to be working under,” McDonough said.

The release of these recommendations to the AIR Commission report kicks off a year-long process of the commission reviewing the recommendations, holding public hearings and submitting its own recommendations to Congress and President Joe Biden by the end of January 2023.

“There’s a long road from here to the enactment of the AIR Commission recommendations. We have a lot of work to do between now and then,” McDonough said.

VA EHR rollouts remain on track following IG reports

The VA, meanwhile, is still moving ahead with plans to have its new Electronic Health Record go live at its second facility this Saturday at the VA medical center in Walla Walla, Washington.

A third go-live is still on track for a VA medical center in Columbus, Ohio on April 30.

Last week, the VA’s inspector general released a series of reports that outlined problems with the first EHR rollout at the Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center in Spokane, Washington.

The IG reports found the EHR rollout in Spokane ran into problems that made it harder for some health care providers to treat patients, and more challenging for veterans to seek care.

Remy said none of the IG’s findings came as a surprise, and were identified previously as part of the agency’s own strategic review.

“We believe we’re armed with the right tools to remediate the challenges as we transition from VistA to the new EHR solution. All healthcare record transitions are complex, there’s no doubt about it. They’re prone to hiccups along the way. Ours is no exception,” Remy said.

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