The Veterans Health Administration this month topped 400,000 employees for the first time with staffing levels pushed higher by months of aggressive hiring practices by federal officials.

Agency leaders say they aren’t finished yet.

“We’re really proud of these results,” Dr. Shereef Elnahal, VA Under Secretary of Health, told reporters on Tuesday. “But we’re not stopping until we reach our external hire goal for this year.”

That goal, announced by VA administrators in late 2022, is 52,000 external hires for the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30. Health leaders have already bought on more than 48,000 individuals so far, including more than 27,000 new hires in high-demand occupations such as physicians, nurses, medical support assistants and housekeeping staff.

Those new employees coupled with stronger-than-expected retention of existing workers have grown the agency — the largest within the Department of Veterans Affairs — to its highest staffing level ever. Elnahal insisted that the growth is needed to keep up with increasing demands from patients.

At least part of that stems from the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act — better known as the PACT Act — signed into law one year ago. Provisions in that sweeping military toxic exposure benefits legislation have allowed more than 100,000 new veterans to sign up for VA medical care in the last year.

Department officials have projected more than 7.4 million in-house patient visits next fiscal year and nearly 140 million outpatient appointments, both up about 1% from fiscal 2023 levels.

“We’re going to take a close look at our hiring goals for next year on particular types of staff for which we are short,” Elnahal said. “Our teams now are working to see what our revised goals will be based on trends. But for sure, we will still be on a hiring agenda next fiscal year.”

The VA health care chief said that part of that work will also include continuing improvements to the federal hiring process for his agency and bringing on more human resources specialists.

“We can’t hire enough of them,” he said. “We want as many HR specialists in our system as possible, because that will help reduce times to onboard and hire employees, which is really the main challenge that we’re faced with right now.”

Congressional appropriators have backed preliminary plans for a $320 billion budget for VA in fiscal 2024, the largest ever. Lawmakers have warned that they’ll scrutinize hiring practices to ensure that department growth makes sense in light of the slow decline in the veteran population in America over the last few decades.

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.

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