Fedweek

Brooklyn, NY - April 2020: Medical and other Veterans Administration employees join registered nurses outside the Brooklyn Veterans Administration Medical Center, in New York, to call for more personal protective equipment (PPE) and staffing assistance to care for those affected by the coronavirus outbreak.

The inspector general’s office at the VA has issued a “management alert” about potential problems with the department’s accelerated hiring to fill positions for pandemic-related needs, which the department for nearly a year has touted as a success story, hiring more than 50,000 employees in the first six months of the pandemic alone.

“The OIG recognizes the tremendous pressure VA faced in meeting the unprecedented and significant challenges posed by the pandemic, which required swift hiring and reallocation of staff. In any such actions to expedite hiring processes, there are inevitable tensions with ensuring security and quality measures are attained,” it says.

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Speeded-up hiring however raises issues about the department’s “ability to safeguard veterans’ sensitive information and to ensure its workforce is suitable for serving patients at VA medical facilities,” it said, noting that the VA is operating under special policies regarding vetting and onboarding employees that apply government-wide under guidance OPM issued last March.

Specific concerns included that employees who have not completed a fingerprint-based criminal history check may gain access to sensitive information and controlled substances; delays in processing fingerprints may add to a preexisting backlog of investigations; and that “other deferred onboarding tasks—such as drug testing and credentialing—may not be centrally monitored to ensure completion.”

For example, the VA “modified or deferred vetting tasks” such as fingerprinting requirements, with the goal of bringing new employees on duty within three days of making a tentative employment offer. While their names are referred for a check of FBI criminal history records, that “may not identify or capture all relevant records” such as for those who changed their names, and does not include certain records that can be searched only by using fingerprints.

Similarly, the requirement for drug testing was changed from pre-appointment to within 90 days of the appointment, and the requirement for full credentialing was moved from before the appointment to within 120 days after.

“The range of target completion dates, accompanied by the unspecified timeline for fingerprinting and background investigations, may increase the risk that local human resources staff do not adequately track all tasks,” the report said. “It was unclear if current mechanisms would permit VHA to ensure that new employees complete the deferred onboarding requirements in the future.”

VA management pointed to steps it had taken to assure that postponement of traditional pre-hire personnel security activities “does not incur additional risk” but the IG said that it took those steps into account in its report and that they “do not represent new information or mitigate the risks identified.”

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