After a year of frenzied hiring to fill jobs created by new legislation and chronic understaffing, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs said it now has the overall personnel it needs and the pace of hiring will ease as medical centers top out.

The Veterans Health Administration reached more than 400,000 staff for the first time in history last year, and brought in more than 61,000 external hires, said VA Press Secretary Terrence Hayes. The department said now it won’t be hiring at the same pace, though it will continue to bring on candidates in mental health care and locations with increasing numbers of patients.

“We believe that we have reached a stage where we have the overall staffing we need to deliver for our nation’s veterans,” Hayes said in a statement to Federal Times.

VA operates the nation’s largest public health care system with more than 1,300 health care facilities. In recent years, the VA has been in a growth spurt, working to recruit and retain employees to meet demands of existing patients and care for hundreds of thousands of veterans newly eligible for care of toxic exposure under the 2022 PACT Act. Hayes said VHA’s turnover is also down 20% as of 2023.

Hiring surges combined with better retention have resulted in a 2% growth rate so far in the first quarter of 2024, and the department estimates its separation rate will continue to stay below average.

Throughout this surge, the department has been working with its regional care centers, called Veterans Integrated Services Network, to determine staffing needs. Though VA sets the agenda for recruitment, each also has each has management and budget authority.

“We are constantly communicating with local VA leaders to make sure that we have the staff we need to best serve our nation’s veterans,” said Hayes in a statement. “As such, leaders are empowered to make decisions at the local level about their ongoing hiring actions.”

As a result, as some of the 18 regional centers fill up, a situation may arise in which job offers need to be rescinded. The VA wouldn’t confirm whether certain offices had been revoking offers of employment, but memos obtained by Federal Times show the agency’s assistant undersecretary for health operations issued guidance to medical center directors and VISNs advising them of a national process for doing so.

“The purpose of this memo is to share guidance and a national process to mitigate unintended impacts that rescinding tentative job offers and final job offers may have on our workforce, our national brand as an employer of choice, and to the candidates themselves,” said RimaAnn Nelson in a Feb. 5 memo.

That came on the heels of another memo dated Jan. 23 that showed offices were “carefully reviewing positions in recruitment” and any in-process job rescissions were to be paused for one week in order to give human capital officers a chance to lay out guidance.

“If we no longer need to fill a position in a certain location, we will look to place any affected individuals in another position at VA if at all possible,” Hayes said. He reiterated in a statement that there is not currently a nationwide hiring freeze or pause, nor are there are any broader plans to reduce the VA health care workforce.

However, one employee, who was granted anonymity in order to speak freely, told Federal Times some job offers had been suddenly revoked. Concerns have also been circulating in forums online about some offices communicating different things to employees about whether they have the ability to fill vacancies.

Government Executive, which first reported the freezes, said one region covering six southern states was projecting a $14 million budget shortfall for 2024 and cannot afford to be recruiting.

It’s unclear to what extent the lack of a budget from Congress affects these decisions, if at all, as federal law guarantees the VA gets advanced funding for three of the four main VHA accounts: medical services, support and compliance, and facilities. In general, agencies across the government are now nearly halfway into the current fiscal year with no new money and a 5.2% mandatory pay raise to fund. That puts pressure on agencies to prioritize certain programs and, in some cases, cut programs they cannot afford to keep afloat, as NASA recently did.

If the government enters a partial shutdown on March 1, VA medical centers will remain open and benefits processing will continue, though disruptions could be felt in other department services, Military Times previously reported.

As future funding takes shape, the department’s under secretary for health, Shereef Elnahal, the department’s under secretary for health, said in a statement will need to make “thoughtful decisions about resource use at every level.”

Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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