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IG warns of security risks due to pandemic hiring measures at VA

Hiring flexibilities used to help the Veterans Health Administration cope with the coronavirus pandemic could be leaving the agency open to the misuse of veterans' information, according to an advisory memo from the VA Inspector General's Office prepared last November and released March 11.

The agency has been operating with the goal of bringing in new hires within three days after making a tentative offer, the memo says, a process that's involved deferring some of the usual steps in onboarding like drug tests and fingerprinting.

Before vaccines were made available, chunks of the workforce were unavailable because of COVID-19 exposure or sickness, said Richard Stone, the VHA's acting undersecretary for health at a hearing before a subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee in February.

"We were running five thousand to six thousand employees who could not get to work," he said.

The agency had hired around 80,000 more staff members with funding from the CARES Act with the help of these shortened onboarding times to bring them in faster, he told lawmakers.

Although these policies have allowed the agency to fill holes in the workforce, they come with potential risks that "may threaten VHA's ability to safeguard veterans' sensitive information and ensure its workforce is suitable for serving patients at VA medical facilities," the memo says.

The Office of Personnel Management issued interim guidance for hiring and onboarding in March. Since then, the VHA has used an expedited hiring process allowing fingerprinting to be deferred in certain cases, such as in the event that fingerprinting offices are closed due to the pandemic.

When that happens, name-based checks with the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency could be used, as opposed to a fingerprint criminal history check run by the Federal Bureau of Investigation for a background clearance called a Special Agreement Check.

The name-based process might not catch all criminal history or search all records, the memo says. In the meantime, new employees could potentially do damage, given the access they have to sensitive information and records. The report says that 512 new hires were processed without fingerprint checks last December.

"Each name-based approach constitutes an increased risk," the memo says. "While this risk might not have been realized in the past, the risk remains relevant into the future while fingerprint flexibilities remain in place."

VHA comments for the report noted that fingerprint offices haven't been closed extensively across the nation.

The VHA has updated the guidance in after receiving this memo in November to ensure pending onboarding tasks are properly tracked to completion, the memo says, and added that the agency "has already taken actions to mitigate the potential risks identified in this advisory memorandum."

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