VHA on track to hit hiring targets, sets sights on shortages in ‘critical’ occupations

VHA is on track to beat its hiring targets for this fiscal year, but it still faces shortages in critical occupations like nursing assistants.

The Veterans Health Administration is coming toward the end of a record year for hiring and is considering its staffing goals for the next fiscal year starting Oct. 1.

VHA has hired more than 43,000 new employees in fiscal year 2023 and is on track to surpass its target of 52,000 new hires by Sept. 30. VHA had predicted at the beginning of fiscal 2023 that it would need to hire at least 50,000 new individuals per year over the coming five years to catch up with veteran care demand.

But in addition to the record number of hires, VHA is also retaining employees at a higher rate than anticipated, VA Undersecretary for Health Shereef Elnahal told reporters Tuesday.

The VHA workforce has grown by 4.9% so far this fiscal year, on track to beat its goal of 3% growth.

“And we are not stopping,” Elnahal said. “We need to hire as many employees as possible to be able to fully and faithfully execute on the increasing care demands that we are seeing among our existing base of veterans as overall, on average, they are getting older across the veteran population. But we are also welcoming many additional new entrants into the system because of the PACT Act.”

VHA has specifically hired 24,609 new employees in its “big seven occupations,” or “the frontline jobs that either involve direct care provision to veterans and clinics and hospitals, or those frontline jobs that directly support that environment of care,” Elnahal said.

VHA set a goal to hire 30,000 individuals across those seven important positions by Sept. 30.

“We are well ahead of pace, specifically on nurses and medical support assistance,” Elnahal said.

The PACT Act, which expands health care and benefits for veterans exposed to toxic burn pits during their military service, gives the VA more than 10 new authorities to support hiring and retention, including higher limits for student loan repayments, recruitment, relocation and retention incentives and eliminating statutory limits on awards and bonuses.

Elnahal said VHA is still deliberating over fiscal 2024 hiring targets. He expects the new goals will be out “within the next couple of months.”

“My thinking on this is that we should be specific and targeted on occupations where we’re still falling short,” he said.

He pointed specifically to nursing assistants and licensed practical nurses.

“We’re seeing global health care workforce shortages in these very critical occupations, and we’re slightly behind schedule in those types of jobs, mostly for that reason,” Elnahal continued. “So there will be jobs for whom we need significantly more people. And where I specifically want to focus is on ambulatory support staff, especially in the primary care setting to alleviate some of the administrative burden on our frontline primary care providers.”

Meanwhile, VHA is also aiming to make progress on the time it takes to fill positions. The median “time-to-fill” is currently 168 days, which is an improvement from April when the median was 179 days, Elnahal said, adding that it’s “still much too long.”

VHA recently distributed training and technical assistance on a new standard hiring process to every Veterans Integrated Services Network, as well standardized training for hiring managers at medical centers and clinics, Elnahal said.

“We’re focused on a lot of training and process improvement and standardization,” he said.

“We saw this phenomenon where, because we had a record number of applications for a lot of our jobs, because we needed to bring many more people into a process that wasn’t fully baked and improved yet, we actually saw time-to-fill slightly increase before it decreased again this year,” Elnahal continued. “So it may be another couple of months before we see demonstrable improvements to a point that we find it satisfactory for time-to-fill. But it’s definitely an area where we need to improve. We’re not where we need to be at there.”

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