Asheville, NC - May 2019: Charles George VA Medical Center. A report with the annual VA spending bill in the House estimates 49,000 vacancies at the VA including physicians and mental health professionals.

The House is moving toward directing the VA to take further actions to address its persistent problems in recruiting and retaining employees, particularly in the medical fields, while also indicating skepticism about how the department is using already enacted changes regarding disciplinary practices.

“The number of unfilled positions at VA has steadily grown and is at present nearly 49,000 system-wide. These unfilled positions include VHA [Veterans Health Administration] physicians and mental health professionals, and the lack of these professionals negatively impacts the delivery of care for veterans,” says a report on the annual VA spending bill as approved by the Appropriations Committee. “VHA facilities have been forced to provide care with fewer staff than are medically necessary to properly care for our nation’s veterans. As a result, the committee is concerned that the significant number of vacancies will lead to longer waits for veterans going without service.”

It says the committee “expects VA to actively recruit and hire full-time professionals to fill these system-wide vacancies” and requires the VA to produce quarterly reports “detailing hiring initiatives and system-wide progress on hiring and specifically what actions are being taken.” It further wants information on “the average length of time to fill a healthcare provider slot at a representative sample of medical centers, including: the time it takes the resource board to approve the hire of a new position; the time it takes to post the job announcement; how long the interview process takes; and the length of time for credentialing; as well as any internal VA goals that exist for the time each step in the process should take.”

It also requires twice-yearly reports on turnover of medical care providers, “including a summary of the principal reasons explaining their departure, and the steps being taken to mitigate the principal reasons providers leave.”

The summary also says that a 2017 law boosting certain whistleblower protections while reducing certain employee rights in discipline was meant “to increase accountability and the integrity . . . not a retaliatory tool for management to use against employees or a means of discrimination against employees.”

The bill orders the VA to report on how it is using those authorities, including a breakdown of disciplinary actions by grade level. That is in reaction to data raised at hearings last year showing that the enhanced disciplinary powers for management are being used disproportionately at lower-level employees—an argument that federal unions and some in Congress use in favor of repealing those provisions.

It meanwhile seeks data on the percentage of SES and non-SES employees who received a bonus and the average dollar amount of the bonuses by grade.