Replacing Retirees Hampered by Lower Salaries

Navy Vice Admiral Raquel Bono, DHA director, addresses attendees of the Female Physician Leadership Course during a presentation this past. Military Health Service photo

WASHINGTON—Oversight agencies are sounding the alarm that VA is plagued with large staffing shortages in critical areas, including physicians, registered nurses, physician assistants, psychologists and physical therapists, as well as human resource specialists.

This shortage, and the barriers that stand in the way of VA hiring and retaining employees, could become increasingly problematic in the next few years as more employees become eligible for retirement, according to the warnings.

According to a March 2019 Government Accountability Office report, about 30% of VA employees who were on board as of Sept. 30, 2017, will hit retirement age by 2022. That same report notes that lack of effective succession planning will hamper VA’s ability to develop a pool of potential staff to meet the organization’s mission over the long term.

Similar difficulties have been spotlighted by VA’s Office of the Inspector General, which has developed a report on VA hiring every year since 2015. The 2018 report was the first to break down needs on a facility by facility basis. A review of the 140 VA medical centers found that 138 were experiencing shortages in medical professionals, with psychiatry and primary care at the top of the lists. Of those 140, 108 also reported nursing shortages. Among nonclinical positions, HR specialists and police were most often cited.

Michael Missal, VA’s inspector general, told legislators at a hearing last month to expect similar results with its 2019 staffing report, which is expected to be released this month.

“The facility-specific results underscored how different the clinical and nonclinical needs are from one facility to another,” Missal told the House VA Committee. “We have consistently recommended that VA develop and implement a staffing model that identifies and prioritizes staffing needs at the national level while allowing flexibility at the facility level.”

Such a plan butts against the perennial hiring challenges reported by VA medical directors, however. The three most frequently cited are: a lack of qualified applicants, noncompetitive salaries and high staff turnover.

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