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VA Undersecretary of Health Shereef Elnahal said Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2022, that the VA will hold national events in November to rush new hires into their workforce and fill vacant jobs faster as the agency works to hire 50,000 workers yearly to keep up with the demands and trends affecting veterans’ health care. Elnahal took over the VA’s top health executive post in July after the job remained vacant for five years.

VA Undersecretary of Health Shereef Elnahal said Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2022, that the VA will hold national events in November to rush new hires into their workforce and fill vacant jobs faster as the agency works to hire 50,000 workers yearly to keep up with the demands and trends affecting veterans’ health care. Elnahal took over the VA’s top health executive post in July after the job remained vacant for five years. (Department of Veterans Affairs)

WASHINGTON — The Department of Veterans Affairs will hold events in November to rush new employees into place and fill vacant posts faster as the agency works to hire 50,000 workers yearly to keep up with the demands and trends affecting veterans' health care, Veterans Health Undersecretary Shereef Elnahal said Wednesday.

The events will occur during the week of Nov. 14 with all the VA's human resource workers gathering with agency facility and network leaders in every regional system to help new employees complete hiring tasks such as training and integrate into the VA, he said during a news briefing with reporters.

Elnahal, who recently worked as the CEO and president of University Hospital in Newark, N.J., said the health care labor market, in general, is more competitive now than it has been in a long time.

“I have perspective on this directly having moved here from competing in the private sector recently,” he said.

The Association of American Medical Colleges, a nonprofit focused on transforming health through medical education, health care, research, and community collaborations, reported in June that the U.S. will see a shortage of up to 124,000 physicians by 2034, which includes primary and specialty care doctors.

In July, the VA inspector general reported 139 Veterans Health Administration facilities had at least one occupational staffing shortage in fiscal year 2022, meaning the demand for the services or occupation is greater than there are people to fill the jobs.

The inspector general also reported it was the first time that they did not see a decrease in severe occupational staff shortages. Additionally, it was also the first time VA facilities identified more 90 occupations as having severe staff shortages.

Steven Lieberman, who served as the acting undersecretary of health until Elnahal took over in July, told the inspector general that the staff shortages were due to the ongoing impact of the coronavirus pandemic and not enough physicians and nurses in the industry, which was reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Elnahal said VA recruiting has an advantage in attracting health care workers with employee benefits such as loan repayment for those who have completed their education, and the authorities granted by the VA Nurse and Physician Assistant Retention and Income Security Enhancement Act, or RAISE Act, and The Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act of 2022, or PACT Act.

The RAISE Act allows physician assistants and advanced practical nurses to receive a salary boost of up to $50,000 and up to $27,400 for registered nurses. The bill was incorporated into the $1.5 trillion Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2022, which President Joe Biden signed into law in March. The PACT ACT, which Biden signed in August, provides funding for the VA's workforce to meet the needs of veterans and establish 31 new VA health care facilities in 19 states.

"What we have to do is make sure we implement all those authorities to the fullest extent and communicate with Congress where we see even more opportunities on expanding our ability to hire better," Elnahal said.

In August, the American Federation of Government Employees — a labor union representing federal workers — released survey results that revealed VA facilities are understaffed, underfunded and lack the resources needed to provide services for veterans.

The survey found 50% of respondents said beds, units, or programs were closed at their facilities due to staffing and budget shortages, despite the high patient demand for services. The survey also found 20% of VA employees have shifted their work to monitoring and coordinating private sector care and 40% said the human resources modernization project at the Veterans Health Administration had increased delays in hiring.

Those surveyed work for the VA's health and benefits administrations and are members of the American Federation of Government Employees.

“We're not only going to be moving the needle on [processing] more employees to serve vets, we're also going to be fostering better relationships between our hospital leaders and staff, and the [human resource] professionals who serve them,” Elnahal said.

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Sara Samora is a Marine Corps veteran and the veterans reporter for Stars and Stripes. A native Texan, she previously worked at the Houston Business Journal and the New Braunfels Herald-Zeitung. She also serves on the boards of Military Veterans in Journalism and the Houston Association of Hispanic Media Professionals.

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