Veterans Affairs health officials surpassed their fiscal 2023 hiring goal of 52,000 new employees with a month to spare, but are still looking to bring in more individuals in coming months to deal with continued high demand for medical service.

VA Under Secretary for Health Dr. Shereef Elnahal told reporters on Monday that as of Sept. 1, just over 54,000 new staffers had been hired in the fiscal year. That includes 30,000 individuals in critical need occupations, including physicians, nurses, schedulers, food service workers and housekeepers.

Coupled with higher-than-expected retention among staffers, the total Veterans Health Administration is now more than 400,000, about 6% above fiscal 2022 employee levels. Elnahal said leaders are confident that level can help prevent clinician burnout and maintain appropriate levels of service for veterans seeking care.

“Having more end strength means that the workload is distributed more evenly,” Elnahal said. “So hiring has so many positive spillover effects to include job satisfaction and hopefully maintaining our lower-than-normal departure rate.”

Last month, VA health care officials said that their aggressive hiring work this fiscal year will not preclude additional hiring in fiscal 2024, which starts Oct. 1.

Department officials have projected more than 7.4 million in-house patient visits next fiscal year and nearly 140 million outpatient appointments, both up current year levels. Much of that increase is tied to new benefits made available through the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act — better known as the PACT Act — signed into law in August 2022, which have allowed more than 100,000 veterans to sign up for new medical medical care in the last year.

Elnahal said officials intend to continue their hiring push through the end of this month while simultaneously looking ahead at appropriate goals and targets for fiscal 2024.

The health chief said despite the good news on hiring, he remains frustrated with the lengthy onboarding time for new employees and is pushing for additional improvements to that process in coming months. The average wait from initial contact with applicants to new hires starting work is currently about 160 days.

The White House has requested a budget of roughly $320 billion for the department in fiscal 2024, but Congress has yet to finalize any spending plan for VA or any other federal agencies.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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