The VA has told Congress that it needs to be able to pay higher salaries and awards to its employees to be competitive at a time when there is a national shortage of health care providers and the department has some 45,000 unfilled jobs in those fields.

VA Secretary Dr. David Shulkin said that receiving permission from OPM to pay “critical pay” to many senior health care providers has helped, but he asked the House Appropriations Committee for legislation to “ensure that VA has the ability to retain high performers by paying them a salary that is competitive with the private sector and performance awards that are commensurate with other federal agencies.”

VA has made progress in streamlining its internal hiring practices, he said, reducing the time it takes to hire medical center directors by 40 percent, for example. But he said that a change in law still is needed in that area, as well.

Shulkin also addressed the major point of focus regarding VA personnel in recent years, disciplinary practices and appeals rights. He said the department supports legislation that would increase its flexibility to remove, demote, or suspend VA employees for poor performance or misconduct; allow it to recoup for poor performance or misconduct awards already paid to employees; and enable recovery of relocation expenses “that occur through fraud or malfeasance.”

That largely reflects provisions of a House-passed bill that has not progressed in the Senate.