I’ve been honored to serve on the Senate and House Veterans’ Affairs Committees to help craft policies designed to fulfill the promise we made to the men and women who served in our nation’s uniform by expanding access to Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) health care, benefits and services.
This responsibility also means ensuring we have qualified personnel across VA clinics to carry out this sacred task. We’ve taken important steps in recent months to bolster the VA’s workforce and we’re continuing to build on this foundation in the 118th Congress.
As I visit with VA personnel across Arkansas, they frequently describe the persistent challenges with filling critical roles to provide care to veterans. Unfortunately, this is a problem nationwide. The VA’s Office of Inspector General found “severe occupational staffing shortages” increased by 22 percent in Fiscal Year 2022 from the previous year.
It’s critical for the VA to always have the staff and leadership necessary to meet the needs of veterans no matter where they live. We’re working to enhance its ability to retain and recruit employees with new tools and resources to fulfill its mission.
Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jon Tester (D-MT) and I have partnered to introduce the VA Clinician Appreciation, Recruitment, Education, Expansion, and Retention Support (CAREERS) Act, legislation that would invest in VA personnel. Our plan would ensure the VA can retain and recruit physicians, nurses and other medical professionals in addition to employees who process benefits claims and others who support and care for our veterans.
We also included a provision in the VA CAREERS Act to address VA Medical Center leadership vacancies and ensure the position of director is filled in a timely manner. The Fayetteville VA Medical Center (VAMC) was without a permanent director for nearly two years and only last month was someone new assigned to this role. This measure would make sure a plan is in place to fill this position within 180 days of a director being given a new VA assignment, which is particularly important given how essential directors are in overseeing the care of veterans at these facilities.
We’re gaining support for this initiative. In recent days Congressman Steve Womack also introduced a bill in the House of Representatives to limit the time VAMCs are without a permanent director.
The VA CAREERS Act accelerates the progress we made last year to grow the VA workforce. In August, Congress approved, and the president signed into law, the PACT Act to deliver toxic-exposed veterans their earned care and benefits. In the months following, the VA Secretary confirmed nearly 200,000 veterans have filed PACT Act-related claims making it even more imperative the department has adequate staffing to manage the expanded eligibility.
In anticipation of an increase in claims, the PACT Act also included a number of measures to expand hiring and retention at the VA, especially in rural areas, as well as set higher pay caps for certain health professionals in order to remain competitive with the private sector.
We’re proud to build on this momentum with the VA CAREERS Act so medical professionals are enticed to begin and extend their careers serving veterans in rural communities and delivering the benefits and care these men and women have earned.
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