The Department of Veterans Affairs may finally fill its top health care post later this month, which could lead to hiring even more doctors and nurses in the months to come.

Last week, in testimony before the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, the White House’s nominee to be the VA’s under secretary for health said one of his top priorities for the job will be improving recruiting and retention for clinical care positions at the Veterans Health Administration.

“The sacred health care mission of VA simply cannot be fulfilled without having people to do it, talented healthcare professionals who put the mission above all else,” said Shereef Elnahal, who currently serves as chief executive officer of University Hospital in Newark, N.J. “So, this is a major priority for me.”

At the start of 2022, VA had about 50,000 open positions in the health administration, including about 2,000 physicians and 15,000 nurses. Department officials have made hiring those specialists a focus in recent years, but struggled in some areas amid increased public demand for health care workers.

Elnahal said part of the effort to fill those posts should be to better sell VA as an ideal workplace for would-be candidates.

“In the VA, there’s a particularly compelling mission that can be circulated more widely in professional society forums and literally every other forum where these talented heroes are looking for jobs,” he said. “And one thing I would do if I am confirmed is to investigate how much we are advertising VA as an opportunity for these professionals across the country.”

Elnahal also promised to continue with initiatives announced by VA Secretary Denis McDonough earlier this year that would improve VA employee pay, benefits and job flexibility.

Those changes, he said, would boost not only hiring efforts but also retention of existing workers, filling critical gaps in the workforce.

The under secretary for health post itself has been one of those vacancies in recent years. The Veterans Health Administration has not had a Senate-confirmed leader since January 2016, when David Shulkin left the role to take over as department secretary.

Since then, the department has undertaken numerous major health care initiatives — including a revamp of the community care program and a 10-year, $16 billion overhaul of VA’s medical records system — without a permanent leader.

Committee members noted that absence during the hearing and warned Elnahal that he will have to address many of those lingering issues alongside future challenges.

White House officials have praised Elnahal as the right pick for that responsibility, highlighting his work during the pandemic as proof of his leadership abilities. In 2021 he set up one of the first vaccination sites in New Jersey and has overseen a host of care quality and patient safety improvements at the hospital during his tenure there.

Elnahal previously served as New Jersey’s health commissioner and was the first Muslim member of New Jersey’s Cabinet in state history. He also worked as assistant deputy under secretary for health for quality, safety and value at VA from 2016 through 2018, overseeing quality of care issues.

Committee members are scheduled to vote on his nomination during a business meeting on May 4. The full Senate is expected to hold a confirmation vote on Elnahal in the next few weeks.

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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