Veteran Affairs officials are ahead on their health care hiring and retention goals for the fiscal year but will need to bring in more human resources personnel to keep pace with the staffing surges in coming months.

In a press conference with reporters on Tuesday, VA Under Secretary for Health Dr. Shereef Elnahal said that the number of employees within the Veterans Health Administration right now is about 388,000, up more than 2% from the start of the fiscal year last October.

Department leaders had previously said they expected to grow staffing levels by 3% in fiscal 2023 to keep pace with increasing workloads through the system.

The increase is due to both a boost in hiring — about 18,500 new employees have been brought on in the last five months — but also a decrease in retirement and departures, Elnahal said.

“Especially when it comes to key nursing workforce jobs, we have been much more successful even than last fiscal year in retaining folks and not seeing them leave for other organizations or into retirement,” he told reporters. “And so we’re very excited to see that.”

Officials credited the success thus far to a host of new hiring authorities granted to the department in the last year, including higher signing bonuses, student loan repayment plans and relocation incentives to fill posts in rural areas.

Elnahal said department leaders still expect to hire about 52,000 more individuals this year to meet their overall staffing goals, including 30,000 individuals in key positions such as physicians, nurses, housekeeping aides and food service workers.

But that target may be lower if retention rates remain high.

One area officials hope to focus on in coming months is “hiring the hirers,” Elnahal said. He said many human resources departments within medical centers across the country are not fully staffed, making it more difficult to quickly fill any open positions.

“It’s not only bringing more people on, it’s training people on our unique authorities,” he said.

Officials are seeing positive results from their new HR Specialist Training and Accelerated Readiness program, a one-year effort that pairs new recruits with virtual training and an established VA mentor to quickly ready them for a post within the department.

Individuals who complete the program are given jobs in VA regional human resources offices but have the option to continue that work virtually.

Elnahal said all business teams within his agency have been instructed to “focus on process improvement and reduce unique bottlenecks” in coming months as part of a broader effort to reduce onboarding times for all new employees. He said that remains the largest challenge for the department in meeting staffing goals.

“But I think we’ve had extraordinary progress on that,” he said. “And we’re proud of that work, because our people enable everything we want to do.”

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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