Veterans Affairs officials saw a surge in patients enrolling in department health care services following the passage of sweeping military toxic exposure legislation last summer, but leaders are confident they have hiring plans in place to absorb the extra work.

Roughly 21,000 more veterans signed up for VA medical services from the start of August 2022 to last week, VA Under Secretary for Health Dr. Shereef Elnahal told reporters on Thursday.

That’s an increase of more than 17% from the same five-month period a year earlier. Elnahal said officials do not yet have data specifically linking the increase to the signing of the the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act (better known as the PACT Act) last summer, but officials believe the two issues are linked.

“We are also doing everything we can to make our resources and personnel systems as efficient as possible, so that our clinics can absorb that demand as it really starts to come in,” he said.

“And we do still have targets for this year to reduce wait times, which really means that our priority around staffing up is first and foremost.”

Along with expanded disability benefits for individuals suffering from illnesses linked to burn pit smoke and other toxins from military service, the PACT Act mandated 10 years of VA health care coverage for troops when they separate from the military.

That benefit extension impacted roughly 800,000 veterans. In addition, VA officials have made a public push in recent months to encourage more veterans to sign up for department health care to ensure their military-specific conditions are being tracked and treated.

The PACT Act and the fiscal 2023 budget approved by Congress included both funding and flexibility for increased staffing at VA medical centers to counter a possible increase in enrollment.

Elnahal said officials have a goal of about 52,000 new hires this fiscal year to replace departing staffers and add personnel to high-demand areas.

Through the first four months of the fiscal year, VA has already hit about half of its hiring goal, he said.

“We need to hire more providers, more clinicians and schedulers, folks from top to bottom in this organization,” he said. “And as we do that, we’re making sure we’re holding ourselves to efficiency and productivity standards that our veterans deserve.”

Congressional critics of the PACT Act last year expressed concerns that the influx of new patients could lead to longer wait times and less access to medical appointments. Both Republicans and Democrats have promised close oversight of the issue in coming months.

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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