WASHINGTON — More than one in 10 Veterans Affairs jobs is currently unfilled, a vacancy rate being downplayed by department officials but likely to raise serious worries among lawmakers who have already voiced concerns about a lack of medical professionals for veterans programs.
More than 45,000 department posts are currently unfilled, with about 40,000 in the Veterans Health Administration alone, according to new data released by the department last week.
The rate was even higher among VA staff offices, with more than 2,500 vacancies, nearly 17 percent of the budgeted management posts.
The figures were touted as another step toward transparency in federal government by VA officials, but were mandated to be made public by Congress in the recently passed VA Mission Act. The data was released just before 5 p.m. on the Friday before the extended Labor Day holiday weekend.
Administration officials have repeatedly hailed the measure, but critics call it demoralizing and unfair to lower-level VA employees.
VA officials also called the information release positive news for their department, since it shows their employee turnover rates “compare favorably with other large cabinet-level agencies.”
But the number of vacancies — roughly 11 percent of the department’s workforce — is almost 10,000 higher than total open positions reported by VA officials.
For months, Democratic lawmakers have said the rising number of vacancies threatens to undermine VA care and services, and have criticized department leaders for not doing enough to fill the roles.
They have also pressed Republican colleagues to require VA fill many of those open positions before expanding care options outside the VA system, arguing that not properly staffing hospitals and clinics undermines the department’s ability to handle veterans’ medical needs.
In a statement, VA said their health systems’ “workforce challenges” mirror that of the larger American health care industry.
“There is a national shortage of healthcare professionals, especially for physicians and nurses,” officials said. “VHA remains fully engaged in a fiercely competitive clinical recruitment market.”
The department also issued a pre-emptive rebuttal to critics of the staffing issues, calling them in line with other large health care systems and that “the best indicators of adequate staffing levels include veteran access to care and health care outcomes, not vacancies.”
At his confirmation hearing in July, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said he was not in favor of a “blunderbuss approach to filling the vacancies” because that could lead to a host of unqualified candidates undertaking sensitive department posts.
In a statement on Friday, Wilkie said that his department is “always looking for new ways to recruit high-quality talent, and will continue to do everything we can to provide the best quality care for our nation’s veterans.”
Lawmakers have also been critical of leadership gaps at the department. President Donald Trump has been unable to nominate a new head of VA health services since becoming president in January 2017, and numerous other top jobs have turned over in the last 20 months.