Senators fret about hiring for major VA expansion

Nov. 16—With some 136,000 veterans filing health care claims under the PACT Act's expansion of eligibility for VA services, the Department of Veterans Affairs is going to need a lot more staff — from housekeepers to doctors.

The PACT Act, signed into law by President Joe Biden in August, added dozens of health conditions and service locations that will automatically qualify veterans for VA health care, including care for veterans exposed to toxic burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan and coverage for veterans with different kinds of cancers.

"The veterans I have talked with over the last few months are really excited about the passage of the PACT Act," said Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., during the hearing. "They also have questions about the implementation and how the benefits are going to be delivered."

Senators said during a Senate Veterans Committee hearing Wednesday they were concerned about staffing for the rapid expansion of VA services, particularly while the labor market remains tight.

The VA is getting ready for a hiring spree, said Shereef M. Elnahal, Under Secretary for Health, Department of Veterans Affairs, during a Senate Veterans Committee meeting Wednesday.

Hiring all the workers needed to cope with an influx of veterans newly eligible for services could be especially difficult in rural areas, like smaller New Hampshire towns that host VA clinics, as well as the VA hospital in White River Junction, Vermont.

Hassan asked about a provision of the PACT Act that required the VA to come up with a national plan for hiring staff in rural areas — and retaining them.

Tracey Therit, the VA's chief human capital officer, said the plan to hire staff in rural areas was still coming together. But she said the VA has been able to hire this year, especially after removing some restrictions on recruitment and retention initiatives, like limits on bonuses.

Keeping pay competitive is a challenge, Therit said. But she said in just the last three months, the VA has hired 700 housekeeping aides nationwide.

Hiring clinical staff in rural America is tough, Elnahal acknowledged.

"As you know these are more difficult health care labor markets," he said. "We simply need enough clinicians and the folks in our system to support them to tackle the increased demand that we expect to see."

Elnahal said the VA is also working to hire college graduates by connecting with groups like the Student Veterans of America, and fostering connections between VA facilities and local colleges to make sure students know about perks of working at the VA — like the student loan repayment program.

Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., said he worried the rapid expansion of VA services "only sets the VA up to fail," he said, which was part of why he voted against the PACT Act.

"With that said, I hope you prove me wrong," he said.