VA Secretary Outlines Priority List for Tens of Thousands of Job Vacancies

VA Secretary Outlines Priority List for Tens of Thousands of Job Vacancies

Photo by Mandel Ngan / Getty Images

VA Secretary Robert Wilkie told lawmakers Feb. 27 that the department is looking to hire medical professionals for primary care, women's health, and mental health needs, filling some of its nearly 49,000 vacancies.

“I will be honest with you - yes, I am concerned,” Wilkie said of the job openings during a House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing. “I would not be honest with you if I told you that my focus would be filling [all the] vacancies. I have to prioritize our efforts as to where we have the most need.”

The VA has been scrutinized for its extensive vacancies, especially as long wait times for appointments have been reported in recent years. Wilkie said wait times have decreased, and he has sharpened his focus to fill vacancies based on the needs of veterans.

[RELATED: VA Now Has Shorter Wait Times Than Private Clinics, AMA Study Claims]

The MOAA-supported VA MISSION Act included some new recruitment tools for VA officials, such as expanded programs to pay off education debt and a pilot program that would pay for a veteran to attend medical school in exchange for a commitment to work four years in a VA facility.

“MOAA supports the VA's efforts to fill critical positions so veterans can receive the care they've earned in a timely fashion,” said Cmdr. René Campos, USN (Ret), MOAA's senior director of Government Relations for veterans and wounded warrior care. “We will continue to work with Congress to give VA officials the proper resources and flexibility, and we'll listen to veterans to ensure hiring priorities match their needs and show results.”

Rep. Conor Lamb (D-Pa.), a Marine Corps veteran, lauded VA officials for decreasing wait times, but said he's hearing from VA workers that shortages are affecting the quality of their work and their well-being. He asked Wilkie if he was instructed by the administration to leave any of the vacancies open; Wilkie said no.

“The shortages are being felt by the people who are there, and I think we all need to work together to address that,” Lamb said.

The VA, which is the second-largest employer in the federal government (behind the Defense Department), reported 48,985 vacancies as of December out of an authorized workforce of about 420,000. More than 42,000 of those vacancies are in the Veterans Health Administration.

DoD's medical staffing also has made headlines, as leaders at the Pentagon may slash as many as 17,000 uniformed medical corps billets across as services to align with the National Defense Strategy's push for a more lethal force.

“The focus of my efforts is to fill primary care, women's health, and mental health,” Wilkie said. “Those are the greatest areas. Mental health goes without saying. Women's health, that's because … the makeup of our veteran population has changed dramatically. And primary health, because newer veterans are used to urgent care.”

[MOAA INTERVIEW: Q-and-A With Secretary Robert Wilkie]

The VA's efforts to recruit professionals centers on increased salaries, bonus pay, and covering relocation expenses. Wilkie said Congress' funding to bump salaries has been vital in attracting talent to the VA.

“And that is absolutely vital if we are going to continue to serve veterans,” he said.

Despite the vacancies, VA officials have said the best way to judge patient satisfaction and meeting needs is against wait times for appointments. VA officials said wait times have been reduced across the system, and every medical center has same-day access to mental health and primary care.

Amanda Dolasinski is MOAA's staff writer. She can be reached at amandad@moaa.org. Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMOAA.