A “state of the VA” message from Secretary Dr. David Shulkin lists difficulties the department experiences in recruiting and retaining employees and accountability as among its top management priorities.

He called for enactment of legislation to give management greater disciplinary powers, saying that under current policy that generally requires a one-month wait before a proposed action can be carried out, there are about 1,500 disciplinary actions pending “meaning we are paying people who need to be fired, demoted, or suspended without pay for violating our core values,” according to a fact sheet.

He cited the recent executive order creating an office of accountability and whistleblower protection reporting directly to him and said that the department will establish a manpower management office by year’s end. He also cited the continuation of a hiring freeze at the central office and consolidation of program offices and more use of shared services as steps toward reducing overhead by at least 10 percent.

Another challenge mentioned is that recruiting and retaining employees in certain occupations “is difficult due to low salaries.” The median national salary for a biomedical engineer, for example, is $85,600 while the VA average is only $65,600, the fact sheet said, while the discrepancy for mechanical engineers is $84,200 vs. $68,800/

Other priorities include reducing disability claims backlogs, getting more veterans access to mental health care and suicide prevention programs, making it simpler for veterans to interact with the department online, improving the IT infrastructure, upgrading buildings in poor condition and disposing of those no longer needed.