Remember how Senator M. Michael Rounds tried to explain away his partisan resistance to the PACT Act by claiming that the Department of Veterans Affairs wouldn’t be able to handle the flood of claims it would receive from millions of veterans seeking treatment for exposure to toxic burn pits and other poisons during their military service?
Yeah, sure, the PACT Act is putting a lot more work on the VA’s plate:
The day after President Joe Biden signed the bill into law in August, veterans set an all-time record for benefits claims filed online and more than 136,000 have applied for benefits under the toxic exposure law as of mid-November. The VA expects the number of veterans and surviving family members applying could reach more than 700,000 in the coming months.
To address the surge in claims, VA is hiring more employees to provide health care and process applications, but officials do expect an increase in the backlog in the short term [Jennifer Shutt, “Thousands of Veterans Deluge VA with Claims for Toxic Exposure Benefits, Health Care,” South Dakota Searchlight, 2022.11.23].
But the VA is busting its chops to clear that backlog:
Joshua Jacobs, who is performing the delegable duties of the VA under secretary for benefits, said in mid-November that the VA is “in a better position to tackle this increased workload” than it was in 2013 when the agency was widely rebuked for letting the backlog swell to more than 600,000.
…Jacobs said the VA moving to a paperless system and hiring of thousands more people will help avoid a significant backlog in the months to come as hundreds of thousands of veterans likely apply for the health care and benefits that are part of the toxic exposure law, known as the PACT Act.
…Jacobs noted the VA has gotten the total backlog down to its lowest in years, below 150,000 claims as of this month [Shutt, 2022.11.23].
The VA’s hiring push includes extra attention to the challenges of recruiting and retaining health care providers in rural America:
While the PACT Act gives the VA plenty to implement, the agency’s fiscal 2023 budget request calls for additional pay incentives, such as raising the $400,000 salary cap for physicians in rural areas.
[Undersecretary for Health Shereef] Elnahal said the agency is also looking to raise pay caps on VA dentists and podiatrists.
“In order to recruit the right folks on the physician, dentist and podiatrist side, it’s becoming much more difficult, especially in rural areas, as salaries go up and the health care labor market becomes more difficult,” Elnahal said. “And we will be able to pay more innovatively as well to incent the right behavior among these clinicians, if we’re able to get that.”
Elnahal said the VHA is also on track to complete a national rural recruitment and hiring plan for healthcare professionals by early 2024.
“These are more difficult healthcare labor markets, it’s harder to get folks recruited for these critical positions. We are actually approaching this in, I think, an innovative way. We’re taking our experts in workforce management and human resources and combining them with our implementation science researchers to collate the data that is available to understand what a targeted outreach plan could look like and make that an actually an evidence-based effort,” he said [Jory Heckman, “VA Embarks on Year-End Push to Implement Workforce Elements of PACT Act,” Federal News Network, 2022.11.25].
The Veterans Health Administration is also bringing its new hires up to speed faster:
The VHA, through a national onboarding surge event last week, completed all the onboarding steps for more than 12,800 new employees — nearly double its goal.
…“My first priority is to hire faster and more competitively, because I know we need many more of those people. The more folks we have to be able to execute the mission, the more veterans we will be able to serve in a shorter time. And that means everything as we prepare for the historic expansion of benefits that the president signed into law this past August,” Elnahal said in a Nov. 23 interview [Jory Heckman, “VHA Nearly Doubles Goal of Onboarding Health Care Workers During ‘Surge’ Event,” Federal News Network, 2022.11.23].
Senator Rounds and other elected Republicans seem to think their job is to sit around complaining about how government can’t solve problems. Fortunately for veterans, the Biden Administration and the VA recognize that their job is to solve problems so we as a country can do what’s right for ailing veterans and other people who need help.