Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough called the months-long onboarding process for new department employees “indefensible” and promised improvements by the end of the year to get those individuals on the job faster.

“I pray to God the next time I appear before this committee that we’ve reduced these numbers,” McDonough told members of the House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday. “Because if we don’t, we won’t meet our hiring goals.”

Official VA employee documents warn that background checks, paperwork filing and other onboarding tasks can take up to two months to complete before candidates can start work.

But under questioning from lawmakers, McDonough acknowledged that for key medical posts within the Veterans Health Administration, the process can take much longer: nine to 12 months, in some cases.

Lawmakers called that timeline unworkable, saying that potential new hires are likely to be scared away by the wait or stolen away by private-sector businesses.

“You can’t take almost a year to bring a physician online,” said Rep. Susie Lee, D-Nev.

In January, researchers from the Government Accountability Office criticized VA leaders for poor tracking of many of those onboarding processes, saying that better oversight could speed up the process.

VA officials last fall held a series of events designed to analyze the problem and bring in new hires more quickly. From the start of October 2022 to the end of December 2022, nearly 13,000 new staff completed the onboarding process, the most ever for that time period.

McDonough said onboarding for January was also up about 12% over the previous year. He credits the change to improvements implemented after the events last fall, but said his department still needs to do more.

“There are about 12 steps for new employees in onboarding, and we need to contract some of those steps out,” he said.

For example, drug testing through private-sector companies could be quicker and more efficient than handling that work internally. Other certification and background checks can be improved with updated technology, automating tasks such as uploading documents and contacting references.

McDonough said he expects to see more changes to the system throughout the rest of the year. The department has set a goal of 52,000 new hires in fiscal 2023. Through the first four months of the fiscal year, VA managers have brought in more than 18,500 new workers.

The VA secretary said he does not see the need for congressional action to grant him new authorities to deal with the problem, but lawmakers on the committee said they would continue to monitor the issue as they consider the department’s budget request throughout the summer.

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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