The Department of Veterans Affairs has hired nearly 24,000 new employees this fiscal year, including 1,200 in the past two months to process claims filed under landmark toxic exposure legislation.
It’s a hiring spree that VA officials say puts the department on track to meet the health care and benefits needs of an expanding disabled veteran population. Critics, however, argue that the agency still has thousands of unfilled jobs and that employees are increasingly spending their time managing appointments and referrals for private care rather than directly caring for veterans.
VA officials said this week that the Veterans Health Administration has hired more than 22,700 new workers since October, approaching the halfway point of its goal of 52,000 for the year with six months left. 16 out of 18 of its medical divisions, or Veterans Integrated Services Networks, have matched or surpassed hiring targets for the year.
Read Next: The Army Digs in for Competition Against Russia, Sets Garrison in Poland
At the Veterans Benefits Administration, which processes claims and is responsible for distributing disability compensation and other benefits, more than 1,000 new workers have been hired for call centers and to handle an influx of claims -- 351,851 as of March 2 -- submitted under the PACT Act.
The PACT Act, signed into law last August, also added more than 27,000 veteran patients to the VA's health care rolls, underscoring the need for hiring hospital and clinic staff and getting them into their jobs as rapidly as possible, according to VA Under Secretary for Health Dr. Shereef Elnahal.
During a press conference with reporters Monday, Elnahal said the VA is on track to do just that, aggressively recruiting and shortening the onboarding process.
"Across the fiscal year thus far, we remain above our projected trendline to meet [our] goal. I hope that if we continue this momentum, we're very likely to exceed that 52,000 goal," Elnahal said.
But a new report from the American Federation of Government Employees' National Veterans Affairs Council and the Veterans Healthcare Policy Institute asserts that the VA is beset by chronic underfunding and understaffing, and its thousands of vacancies -- 76,000 as of last quarter -- is stretching VA employees to their limits.
The VA needs policies in place to protect these workers and to shield the department from increased pressure to expand its community care programs -- "incremental privatization," according to officials with the union, the largest at the VA, representing 291,000 workers.
According to a survey conducted by the groups, 96% of respondents at the VHA said they needed more frontline clinical staff and 75% said they needed more administrative staff, while 77% reported there were vacant VHA positions "for which no recruitment is taking place."
VHA workers also said their work in coordinating or referring veterans to private care has increased substantially in the past four years, taking them away from the duties for which they were hired.
At the VBA, 62% of respondents said they were considering leaving their job in the next two years as a result of the high work tempo, according to the report, co-authored by Suzanne Gordon, a journalist who now serves as senior policy adviser with the Veterans Healthcare Policy Institute, and Jasper Craven, a journalist and Institute fellow.
"Our survey showed that staff are very dedicated, as Secretary [Denis] McDonough has said, but unfortunately, they don't feel very supported," Gordon said during a press conference with reporters Tuesday.
The report made a number of recommendations, to include adding staff and fully funding VBA and VHA and abandoning an effort to centralize and modernize the VA's human resources systems, which the authors argue stands in the way of local hiring.
"The VA hiring process has always been too cumbersome and that needs to be reversed, but rather than reversing that, [the HR modernization is making it even more cumbersome," Gordon said. "[VA medical center] chiefs of staff ... were really crying for help, and that was amplified in our survey."
The VHA's new hiring initiative which has added more than 20,000 workers this year is geared toward seven occupations: physicians, nurses, housekeeping aides, medical support assistants, nursing assistants, licensed practical nurses and food service workers.
Elnahal said the department has used new allowances under the PACT Act to provide incentives to new hires, such as higher student loan repayments, increased awards and bonuses, and expedited hiring for new graduates.
At the VBA, renewed focus on hiring and retention has nearly cut the administration's attrition rate by half, from 4.64% last year to 2.69% through January this fiscal year, according to VBA officials.
Aaron Lee, executive director of the VBA's Office of Human Capital Services, said the administration has instituted several programs in the past two years, such as flexible work arrangements and retention programs, to keep its workers.
"Our attrition rates have definitely taken a downturn; we've seen people staying with us a lot longer than usual," Lee said during a press conference with reporters Tuesday. "One of the things we've always been able to [offer to] maintain and sustain staff is this mission is the greatest in the world. It's not a hard mission to sell."
Lee said he had not seen the report from AFGE and VHPI, but he felt confident that the department was on track to ensure that workers had the resources they need to meet demand now and in the coming years.
The VBA currently has roughly 3,000 vacant positions.
"I feel, based on what we requested through our [full-time employee] request process and the Office of Management and Budget, that we're definitely not only meeting the needs, but the folks that we're bringing on are also the right people to do the work that we have before us," Lee said.
As of January, the Veterans Benefits Administration has 27,337 employees.
Of the more than 350,000 claims filed under the PACT Act, which expanded benefits for veterans exposed to environmental pollutants while deployed overseas in specific regions and certain years, the VBA has reviewed 153,766 claims and issued 124,325 claims decisions, awarding a total of $661 million in benefits payments to veterans or their survivors, according to the VA.
-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.
Related: VA to Change Motto, Switching to Gender-Neutral Language that Recognizes All Who Have Served