September 18, 2019

Chairman Takano on 49,000 VA Vacancies: ”These staffing challenges are not insurmountable”

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Mark Takano (CA-41) delivered opening remarks before the full committee oversight hearing entitled “How Barriers To Hiring At VA Affect Patient Care And Access.” Additionally, the Committee reauthorized the Women Veterans Task Force chaired by Congresswoman Julia Brownley. Below is a link to the video of the Chairman’s opening statement and his remarks as prepared:

9.18

Good afternoon. I call this hearing to order.

Today’s hearing will be the first of several discussions this Committee and its subcommittees will hold on how the Department of Veterans Affairs is addressing longstanding staffing challenges. Data reported last month indicates there were more than 49,000 vacant positions across VA.  49,000. 

 That is an astounding number! But there is more to it than just a number, and I want to look behind that number and understand what it really means and how staff vacancies impact VA’s ability to meet its mission. I am concerned that if VA’s vacancy rate continues to balloon unchecked, we will have no choice but to continue to send increasing numbers of veterans into the community for care. And community providers aren’t ready to care for increasing numbers of veterans, according to a RAND Corporation study last year. This is the wrong path for the VA and is most assuredly the wrong path for veterans.

First, we need to understand the scope of VA’s staffing challenges.  The MISSION Act required VA to report quarterly data on staffing and vacancies.  However, VA’s Office of the Inspector General has found numerous problems with how VA reported these numbers over the first year. VA’s data overstated the number of vacant positions for some medical facilities by as much as 20 percent, and understated vacancies at other facilities by as much as 8 percent. Instead of reporting vacancies by occupation, as the law required, VA published its vacancy data as occupational groups. Finally, VA only posted the most recent quarter’s data on its public-facing website. So, we had no idea where the critical needs really were or whether VA has made progress in filling critical vacancies. I am told that VA has attempted to correct these deficiencies since the IG published its report.

 Second, we need to know what actions VA is taking to address longstanding staffing challenges and the extent to which VA has made full use of numerous new authorities Congress has authorized in recent years. VA was given direct hire authority to be able to bring on staff in areas of greatest need. However, data shows that VA is not using this authority to the fullest extent. For instance, in 2018, VA only hired 38 police officers under direct hire authority, a rate far slower than the pace of attrition. We need to understand why VA is struggling to use this and other tools Congress has provided.

Third, while there is always concern with shortages among clinical staff – the ability to meet the highest standard of care to our veterans relies on more than just having the right number of physicians, nurses, and pharmacists. We also need qualified and well-trained housekeepers, IT technicians, human resources staff, and all of the other occupations that help VA achieve its mission of delivering high-quality and timely health care. There are numerous identified barriers and challenges associated with hiring and retaining these staff, but we also need to hold VA accountable for identifying and implementing solutions. It is not enough to say that something is a barrier – we need to understand the extent of the problem as well as develop an actionable and accountable plan to fix it.

 

Fourth, leadership and governance in human capital has been a challenge. This is a common refrain in much of VA’s operations. 

There has been a string of acting and interim leadership responsible for managing human capital for VA and the Veterans Health Administration since 2016. I am pleased to have Mr. Sitterly and Ms. Bonjorni here today, and I hope that VA will take the opportunity to address some longstanding recommendations from the IG and the Government Accountability Office. As we well know, it is hard to institute change when no one is responsible and accountable.

Fifth, there are thousands of dedicated VA employees doing their best every day to ensure that veterans have a positive experience and that they get the very best care and resources. I have had the privilege of meeting some of these dedicated public servants and I thank them for all they do. 

But I also know that these same staff are overwhelmed, and while they have done more with less, at some point less is not enough. VA’s mission also means doing the very best for its employees. GAO has reported on the need for training, performance management, and other improvements to ensure that VA can retain a qualified workforce. I hope to hear about progress on the recommendations from today’s witnesses, and what VA is doing to increase morale in the Department.

Sixth, is the concerning effects these vacancies have on the success or failure of billions of dollars’ worth of technology modernization projects at VA.

These projects have the potential to improve health care and benefits delivery, but they will also have major impacts on staff productivity. Those impacts will likely be more acutely felt at VA’s medical facilities and in programs that are already understaffed. This is a particular concern for the Electronic Health Record Modernization project, as front-line staff members will have to be peeled away to complete countless hours of training, and some staff members will be removed from service for a month or more to act as super-users to help train and support other staff. These are essential activities, but there are questions about how VA will be able to manage these complex IT implementations and training, and still meet its primary missions while not being fully staffed. There needs to be greater transparency into VA’s staffing plan for these IT programs.

It is my hope, over the course of this hearing, to gain a better understanding of progress that has been made, barriers that remain, and what VA proposes to do next. Further, if VA really needs additional tools to address these challenges, I hope you will speak up. 

These challenges are not insurmountable. The Committee is here to work with VA as a partner to ensure VA can meet these challenges now and in the future. To do that, we need transparency from VA so we can have an open and honest dialogue about the resource needs of the Department, and how VA intends to use those resources to provide the highest level of service to our nation’s veterans. 

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