Veterans Affairs leaders said they set all-time records in health care, benefits delivery and veteran outreach efforts in fiscal 2023. Keeping up with that pace this fiscal year, however, will mean setting more new records in hiring and efficiency efforts.
“Last year we grew by more than 20% of the total Veterans Benefits Administration workforce, and we are actively continuing to hire more in the coming year,” Under Secretary for Benefits Joshua Jacobs said during a reporters call Friday about VA accomplishments in the past year.
“And so, we have a plan that is going to enable us to continue delivering more benefits to more veterans than ever before.”
Department officials this week released a long list of notable benchmarks for VA support services.
They include 116 million completed healthcare appointments (up 3% from the previous record), 5.5 million completed dental appointments (up 5% from the previous record), 1.98 million veteran and survivor claims processed (up 16%), 103,000 benefits appeals processed (up 8%) and 1 million contacts with the Veterans Crisis Line (up 15%).
The numbers underscore a dramatic workload increase across nearly every sector of the department at a time when lawmakers and advocates have voiced concerns about the potential of emerging obstacles for veterans accessing support services.
But VA administrators are confident they can maintain that pace, even after a year of record hiring levels.
“We are in a much better place with total full-time employees on board in the healthcare system than we were even just a year ago,” said Dr. Shereef Elnahal, the VA under secretary of health. “We’re at more than 408,000 employees on board in the healthcare system, and we’re only beginning to see the potential of increasing the volume of care with those [employees].
“Some of them take time to get acclimated and become fully productive. And so, there’s a lot of room for us to grow our volume even more with the employees we already have on board.”
But Elnahal said officials will be targeting the hiring of more specialists — mental healthcare providers and other in-demand healthcare staff — in an effort to fill in the gaps of care in coming months.
Easing the pressure to get more personnel is the department’s current retention rates. Across the department, leaders saw about 20% fewer employees leave in fiscal 2023 than the previous year.
Jacobs said he is eyeing hiring at least 4,000 more staffers in coming months to catch up to the demands in benefits processing, and will need a steady flow of new employees after that to deal with routine turnover and attrition. His agency currently has about 32,000 workers.
But both administrators said to achieve those staffing goals, they still need to address the department’s slow hiring process. Elnahal said that on average, new employees still wait more than 160 days to start at their new posts. He said new policies and procedures will be announced soon to deal with those problems.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.