WASHINGTON — Veterans Affairs has a human resources problem, and it's complicating an already difficult recruiting process for the embattled department, outside analysts told lawmakers Wednesday.
A new analysis of department operations shows shortfalls in human resources specialists across the department are hurting retention and slowing the hiring of new employees, resulting in a growing number of vacancies across the VA bureaucracy.
And fixing the problem is complicated by President Trump's federal hiring freeze announced in January. More than 100 VA jobs have been given exemptions from that freeze, but HR specialists are not among them.
"A prolonged hiring freeze could further erode the Veterans Health Administration's capacity to provide needed HR functions," a new Government Accountability Office report released Wednesday warned. "VHA's challenges recruiting and retaining clinical and HR employees are making it difficult to meet the health care needs of our nation's veterans."
VA officials testifying before the House Veterans' Affairs Committee Wednesday said the problem lies with outdated federal regulations that require lengthy hiring processes and inflexible salary scales.
Hiring for some of the most senior and junior non-political positions in the department can take up to a year, according to Paula Molloy, assistant deputy undersecretary for health for workforce services.
Department leaders in recent years have pushed changes in both of those areas, arguing it will make VA function more like a private business. Last week, the House unanimously passed legislation on the topic, including better training for HR professionals and direct hiring of many VA positions.
No timetable has been announced for when the Senate may take up that proposal.
VA officials have said they have about 48,000 vacant positions across the department, many in hard-to-fill mental health and clinical roles. Bill sponsor Rep. Brad Wenstrup, R-Ohio, said Wednesday that lawmakers need to find solutions to the issue as soon as possible.
"As the existing VA workforce becomes eligible to retire in vast numbers, VA is not well-positioned to recruit and retain the young talent needed to guide the department into the future," he said.
But to hire those specialists, VA needs better hiring managers, said Max Stier, president of Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit focused on government reform.
"The hiring freeze has been a real problem," he said. "Even when there is an exception made for (certain VA jobs), there is a message being sent that the government is not hiring."
VA internal goals state every 60 staffers should be overseen by at least one HR specialist. But GAO officials said only 23 of 139 VA medical centers across the country are currently at that staffing level. Among the others, 58 have a ratio of one-to-80 or worse.
Louis Celli, director of veterans affairs and rehabilitation at The American Legion, said fixing the problem goes beyond streamlining employment rules at the sprawling bureaucracy to making the department a more appealing place to work.
VA hospitals competing with high-profile medical centers for talent not only have to deal with red tape and federal rules but also the public perception of the department in the wake of multiple care scandals. He implored lawmakers to help by highlighting the positive work being done by VA physicians to help veterans, even as they continue important oversight work.
"I ask everyone to stop taking cheap shots at VA," he said. "It’s hurting morale, it’s hurting retention efforts."
VA officials said they are working to improve other HR management functions to ease the problems, including a new performance management system expected to be fully implemented by fall 2018.
But they also noted that congressional action is needed to make major changes in the department’s recruitment processes.
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.