October 25, 2023
WASHINGTON, D.C. – In a hearing of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee (SVAC), U.S. Senator Angus King expressed the urgent need for the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (VA) to find pragmatic, workable solutions in order to keep VA facilities properly staffed, fully open, and industry-competitive. He questioned Tracey Therit, the Chief Human Capital Officer within the VA, about the direct effect that bureaucratic hiring processes and lack of staff can have on veterans seeking care.
“We're turning away and losing veterans because of lack of staff. It's an enormous problem. I understand it's a problem throughout the society. Every business that I talk to is short of staff. But I want to talk about the staffing problem in the VA, and that's where you might be able help us. There are two issues that I've identified. One is pay and the other is red tape. Let's talk about pay for a minute…but of the time to fill [job openings], the lowest are generally urban areas and the highest are rural areas. Now, this is a small sample, but I'd like you to do this analysis on a broader sample and see if I'm correct. But I believe that you'll find that rural areas are having a harder time,” began Senator King. “The time to fill in Maine is 251 days. In White River Junction, it’s 261 days. In Providence, it’s 127. I think that's where we get to the pay part. The difference in pay between different areas of the country, I think, is obsolete because people can work anywhere. You can now live in rural Maine and work remotely for the VA in Boston. Why would you go to work for the VA in Togus, Maine at a 15-percent or 20-percent pay cut if you can work remotely in Boston? Do you see what I mean? We're hurting the competitiveness of our rural VA facilities. So, I think we should really have a rethinking of the pay differential, which is based on times you didn't have remote working, people weren't as mobile. This is national competition for professionals. Ms. Therit, you've nodded a few times. What do you think?”
“So, I think Mr. Perry and I may join forces on answering this question. I agree. I think the authorities that we have in the Pact Act have helped us to level some of those gaps or close some of those gaps that you've talked about between urban and rural because we're able to offer more incentives to those rural facilities,” replied Tracey Therit.
“But I know that Togus is not competitive with Boston or New Bedford or Providence,” replied Senator King.
“We still have a long way to go. And then working with organizations like the Federal Salary Council and the Federal Prevailing Rate Advisory Committee, that's where I'm trying to spearhead some of these efforts at a broader level. I know Mr. Perry's team is working on one deliverable that we still owe the committee from the Pact Act, which is the Rural Recruitment and Retention Plan, where we can put more effort into reducing the red tape that you're seeing,” said Therit.
“I haven't gotten to that yet. Yeah, but look at the pay issue. I mean, I believe that the whole idea of differential pay in different regions based on cost of living is somewhat obsolete because when you're competing for a healthcare professional, they have nationwide choices, and to have a significant disadvantage in pay…I don't think it's any coincidence that White River and Togus are the ones that are lagging here, because they both have really good management. I know the people at Togus. They're terrific. So, it's not a management issue. It's that they've got to compete, and they have to compete with local hospitals. That's a real problem. To hire a professional at Togus or Wright River is around 250 days’ time to fill. At our Northern Light Healthcare Facility, which is in the same region in northern and eastern Maine, it's 56 days. Maine Health, it's about 89 or 90 days, but significantly below. And yet that's who we're competing with. We have to really think hard about all the steps, and here's one of them. My understanding and my research tells me that there's something like 24 steps to hire somebody in the VA, and at Northern Light, it's seven. We’ve got to rethink that, it seems to me, because, again, we're in a competitive situation,” concluded Senator King.
A member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, Senator King is committed to ensuring veterans and their families receive their earned benefits and support from the VA. Most recently, he led a letter asking the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to find workable solutions to staffing long term veteran care. Senator King has repeatedly pressed the VA on the need to hire and retain more staff in order to meet the demand for veteran care. Senator King also spearheaded the passage of legislation to better track and study servicemember suicides by job assignment. Senator King has also worked to properly honor and recognize the sacrifices of Purple Heart medal recipients, protect veterans from fraud, and expand veteran assisted living services.