Boosting VA pay is key to retention, Wilkie says

The Department of Veterans Affairs wants to pay medical workers more competitive salaries to better attract and retain them during the pandemic, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said, and Congress just gave the agency more authority to do it.

The Department of Veterans Affairs wants to pay medical workers more competitive salaries to better attract and retain them during the pandemic, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said, and Congress just gave the agency more authority to do it.

“We have to attract doctors and nurses who we are competing with the private sector on,” he said, speaking at a recent Defense Writers Group virtual event.  “We’ve thrown away the book on hiring. In the last seven weeks we’ve hired over 18,000 [providers]; 90% of those are permanent. Almost 5,000 are nurses.”

Wilkie said he was happy about the pace of hiring, but “we have to be realistic. There are certain medical skills we can’t attract unless we have that ability to compensate those professionals.”

The newly passed law allows the VA secretary to lift salary caps for certain high-level employees and officials -- including qualified physicians, dentists, clinicians, medical and pharmacy directors -- beyond the basic pay scale. Certain executive positions, such as the VA’s deputy undersecretary for health, are also covered in the law.

But pay flexibility is only part of the issue. Wilkie said shortening the hiring process, which can often take a year or more, has also been important to improving the VA’s operations.

Staffing shortages at the VA are not limited to medical personal, however. In 2019, 40% of VA hospitals suffered from shortages of housekeeping staff, with more than 2,000 positions unfilled, according to a March 26 inspector general’s report of the Veteran’s Health Administration’s COVID-19 screening processes and pandemic readiness.

VA facilities are also working with fewer policing staff, with 65 facilities calling it a “severe occupational shortage,” the report said, “due to training, recruitment, and retention challenges, as well as the additional strain caused by the need for additional police presence for COVID-19-related screenings.”

In its response, VHA said it is actively recruiting permanent and temporary employees for both clinical non-clinical positions and is “particularly interested in rapid re-employment of retired VA clinicians and Federal health care providers.”  The agency said that the Office of Personnel Management had recently granted the VA emergency authority to use dual compensation waivers to ensure that recently retired employees can be rehired with no loss to their retirement annuities.

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