A bill (HR-5674) up for a House vote this week seeks to improve several benefits for VA employees in response to that department’s continued difficulties in recruiting and retaining health care employees that has resulted in a consistent vacancy rate of above 10 percent.

The VA has “considerable recruitment and retention issues,” says a House report on the bill, which among other things would revamp a program of allowing veterans to get outside care when it is not readily available through the VA itself and that would create a base closings-like process to realign or close some facilities and use the savings for new space.

The bill would: lift limits previously set by Congress on amounts the VA can pay in recruitment, relocation and retention incentives along with performance-based cash awards; prioritize the payment of those incentives while requiring annual reporting on performance awards; increase the amounts that can be paid through a VA-specific student debt repayment program used for recruitment and retention purposes for health care professionals from $24,000 to $40,000 annually and from $120,000 to $200,000 lifetime and make Vet Center employees eligible for that program; create a separate but similar program targeting newly graduated medical students or residents who are training in specialties deemed by VA to be experiencing a shortage; and provide scholarships to medical students in exchange for a service commitment.