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H.R. 1367, to improve the authority of the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to hire and retain physicians and other employees of the Department of Veterans Affairs, and for other purposes

Floor Situation

On Friday, March 17, 2017, the House will consider H.R. 1367, to improve the authority of the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to hire and retain physicians and other employees of the Department of Veterans Affairs, and for other purposes, under a structured rule. H.R. 1367 was introduced on March 6, 2017 by Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-OH), and was referred to the Committee on Veterans Affairs and Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. The Committee on Veterans Affairs ordered the bill reported on March 8, 2017 by voice vote.


Summary

H.R. 1367 improves the Department of Veterans Affairs’ ability to identify staffing shortages, recruit and retain high-quality employees, and quickly on-board new hires. Specifically, the legislation does the following:

Section 2: The section modifies the annual determination of Veterans Health Administration (VHA) staffing shortages by including 5 clinical occupations and 5 non-clinical occupations within each VA medical center. The Committee believes this will allow for a more targeted identification of local staffing needs.

Section 3: This section establishes an Executive Management Program to allow eligible VHA and Veterans Benefit Administration (VBA) employees the opportunity to take one-year fellowship positions in comparable private-sector entities and eligible private sector employees to take one year fellowship positions in comparable VHA or VBA sites.  The Committee believes this program will foster and facilitate a mutually beneficial exchange of people, ideas, knowledge, and best practices between the VA and private sector entities.

Section 4: This section requires the VA to conduct annual performance plans for VA political appointees to ensure senior political appointees undergo performance planning and appraisal processes similar to career senior executives. Each performance plan will evaluate recruiting, selecting, and retaining well-qualified individuals for VA employment; engaging and motivating employees; training and developing employees and preparing them for future VA leadership roles; and holding each manager accountable for addressing performance issues for the employees under their purview. This will not include performance awards to political appointees.

Section 5: This section changes the requirement that guardsmen and reservists must serve 180 consecutive days on active duty to a requirement that they serve 180 cumulative days on active duty to be eligible for veterans’ preference. It also expands those considered “preference eligible” to include all retired servicemembers.  

Section 6: This section allows the VA to noncompetitively reappoint a former VA employee to a position not more than one grade higher than his or her former position as long as the employee left voluntarily within the prior two years, had a satisfactory performance record, and maintained necessary licensures and credentials.

Section 7: This section requires the VA to establish a recruiting database listing each vacant position that VA determines is critical to its mission, is difficult to fill, or both. The database would contain information on qualified individuals who applied for a position within the VA and were not chosen but could be qualified for other similar positions within the VA.

Section 8: This section requires the VA to train VHA human resources professionals after their initial hire and annually thereafter on how to recruit and retain VHA employees, in general, and on recruitment and retention matters that are unique to the VHA.

Section 9: This section requires the VA to establish a promotional track for technical experts that does not require the transition to a managerial position. The Committee believes this will allow VA to retain needed, high-quality employees who desire to advance in their career without taking on management role within VA.

Section 10: This section requires GAO to study and report on succession planning for each medical facility within the VHA as well as mission-critical positions within VBA and NCA. This study would include: a determination of the mission-critical positions and the vacancy risk of such positions; an analysis of the future needs for the identified positions; and, strategies to fill gaps through training for existing staff, targeted recruitment and hiring.

Section 11: This section requires the VA to collect information, indicators, and measurements on hiring effectiveness and employee satisfaction and submit an annual report to Congress on the information collected for each Veterans Integrated Service Network. Some of these indicators include: recruiting and hiring well-qualified talent from diverse talent pools, the use and impact of special hiring authorities and flexibilities to recruit the most qualified applicants (including the use of student internships as a talent pool for future hires), and the use and impact of special hiring authorities and flexibilities to recruit diverse candidates (including veteran, minority and disabled candidates).

Section 12: This section requires the VA to promulgate regulations to allow for excepted service appointments for students and recent graduates leading to conversion to career or career conditional employment.

Section 13: This section requires the VA to develop and conduct a standardized, anonymous exit survey to be voluntarily completed by VA employees who voluntarily elect to terminate their employment with the Department. The results of these surveys are to be compiled and shared with Congress in an annual report.


Background

Section 2: Through Committee oversight, the Government Accountability Office, and the Inspector General (IG) of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), reports have found inadequate staffing and gaps in health care professional hiring at VA facilities across the country. In 2014, Congress enacted section 301 of the Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act of 2014 to require the IG to annually identify and publish the five occupations of health care providers with the largest staffing shortages and authorize the VA to use direct hiring authority to fill shortages for each of the five occupations. According to the last report, the VA’s largest critical need occupations are Medical Officer, Nurse, Psychologist and Physician Assistant, and Physical Therapist and Medical Technologist.[1]

Section 3: In 2016, the VA ranked 17 out of 18 among large agencies for the Best Place to Work in the Federal Government survey. The Committee is committed to finding creative ways for employees with leadership potential to improve their skills through leadership development and training opportunities. Other agencies employ similar programs, including at the White House and at the Department of State.[2]

Section 4: Since the 2014 VA nationwide access scandal, the Committee has focused in oversight efforts on increasing accountability of VA employees.  In the past the Committee has reviewed performance plans for Senior Executive Service employees. Political appointees are not currently required to undergo performance plans.[3]

Section 5: Veterans’ Preference provides eligible veterans with an advantage when they compete with equally qualified non-veterans candidates for Federal employment. Under current law there are several different categories of preference that are based on a veteran’s time on active duty service or their disability rating. Section 2108 of title 5, U.S.C. requires that in order to receive veterans’ preference, a national guardsman or reservist must have served at least 180 consecutive days on active duty. The Committee believes this requirement is obsolete and does not reflect the Department of Defense’s utilization of the National Guard of Reserve components.[4]

Section 6: Currently, former federal employees who have left federal service may be non-competitively reinstated only to a job at or below the grade level they last held. As a result, medical and other professional who have left VA employment to gain valuable education and/or experience elsewhere cannot be considered noncompetitively.[5]

Section 7: In a 2015 interview, the then Deputy Secretary stated that more than 50% of senior leaders in the VHA turn over in a 24-month period.  The VA has been unable to produce a plan to prioritize recruitment and retention for medical center leaders.[6]

Section 8: In 2016, the Government Accountability Office found that between fiscal year 2011 and fiscal year 2015, VHA lost 1,904 human resources staff to attrition. The Committee believes that VHA HR personnel are at an increased likelihood of departure due to burnout resulting from a failure to properly train HR officials on the intricacies of VHA hiring practices. VHA currently utilizes two personnel systems one for title 5 U.S.C., competitive service and another one for title 38, U.S.C. excepted service. Of the two, hiring authorities under title 38, U.S.C., are unique to VHA and can be complex.[7]

Section 9: According to testimony from the Partnership for Public Service in 2016, ‘‘[t]he rigid structure of the GS system requires employees to move into supervisory and management roles, even in cases where the employee may not have the skills or desire to perform as a manager but must take on such duties in order to advance in their career.’’7 Requiring highly technical employees to either leave VA employment, remain in their current position indefinitely, or take on managerial roles for which they may be ill suited and uninterested is not an effective recruitment or retention tool.[8]

Section 10: Succession planning is a process for identifying and developing new leaders to replace those retiring or otherwise vacating their current roles. The VA faces an aging workforce that is becoming increasingly retirement-eligible.[9]

Section 11: In 2016, GAO released a report, which found that the VHA fell short of Federal standards for effective internal controls to support HR functions, compromising VHA’s ability to deliver HR services and effectively serve veteran patients. This finding is consistent with the Committee’s findings that VA and VHA HR employees in the field and in leadership often lack information regarding key measures that could indicate weaknesses in HR practices.[10]

Section 12: The VA’s existing workforce is aging and increasingly retirement eligible, creating concerns about the Department’s ability to continue providing high-quality benefits and services to future generations of veterans. Worryingly, in 2015, GAO found that 42% of VHA’s overall senior leadership was eligible to retire and, by fiscal year 2019, one in five VA nurses would be eligible to retire.[11]

Section 13: Voluntary, anonymous exit surveys are an important tool to inform HR professionals and agency leaders about why departing employees choose to leave their current positions and, thus, how to better retain others in the workforce. While VHA has an existing exit survey process, the Committee believes that VHA currently does a lackluster job at administering exit surveys and often fails to request the completion of a survey from a departing employee, thus denying VHA the opportunity to improve retention moving forward.[12]


Amendments

  1. Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-OH) – This manager’s amendment extends the timeline to implement the fellowship program from 90 days to one year and extends the GAO reporting deadline from one to two years. Additionally, it removes the requirement to track a number of hiring effectiveness metrics, changes the establishment of a recruiting database from a “shall” to “may” authority, and stipulates that HR training be accomplished virtually.
  2. Rep. Grace Meng (D-NY) – This amendment makes clear that the Inspector General of the VA must report, pursuant to 38 U.S.C. 7412, on at minimum five clinical and five nonclinical VA occupations that have the largest staffing shortages, which then triggers special hiring authorities for the Secretary to address such shortages.
  3. Rep. Terri Sewell (D-AL) – This amendment allows the Secretary to select eligible employees for the Executive Management Fellowship Program who represent or service rural areas, to whatever extent practicable.
  4. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa (D-HI) – This amendment strikes section 6, “Reemployment of Former Employees,” which would allow for the Secretary to appoint former employees at one grade higher than when they last separated, without having to go through the usual competitive application process.
  5. Rep. Ken Buck (R-CO) – This amendment prevents former political appointees at the VA from receiving non-political, competitively selected positions at the VA without having to go through the proper selection process.
  6. Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (D-NH) – This amendment requires the Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs to list open mental health positions in the database established under the bill.
  7. Rep. Julia Brownley (D-CA) – This amendment clarifies that “medical facility” referenced in Sec. 10 includes each medical center, domiciliary facility, outpatient clinic, community-based outpatient clinic, and vet center.
  8. Rep. Peter Welch (D-VT) – This amendment adds an analysis of succession planning and hiring in rural areas, and requires a study on the ability to hire and recruit veterans in rural areas.
  9. Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ) – This amendment adds veterans who are recent graduates and/or recipients of Post-9/11 GI Bill Educational Assistance as a distinct category of individuals who are allowed for excepted service appointments.
  10. Rep. Jaime Herrera-Beutler – This amendment strengthens anonymity protections for employees filling out exit surveys, and requires exit survey data to be compiled at the VISN level to identify and acknowledge regional differences.
  11. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa (D-HI) – This amendment requires the total number of employees that voluntarily separated and the percentage of those employees that took the voluntary exit survey.
  12. Rep. Grace Meng (D-NY) – This amendment encourages the transition of military medical professionals into employment with the Veterans Health Administration upon discharge or separation from the Armed Forces.
  13. Rep. Mike Bost (R-IL) – This amendment directs the Department of Veterans Affairs to develop and implement a plan to hire a director for each VA medical center without a permanent director.
  14. Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) – This amendment allows the VA to offer physicians conditional job offers two years prior to the completion of their residency program. Requires VA recruiters or similar official to visit each teaching institution with a residency program at least once annually.

Cost

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates enacting H.R. 1367 would cost $28 million over the 2017-2022 period, subject to appropriation of the necessary amounts. Implementing the bill would not affect direct spending or revenues, therefore pay-as-you-go procedures to not apply. Further, CBO estimates that enacting H.R. 1367 would not increase net direct spending or on-budget deficits in any of the four consecutive 10-year periods beginning in 2028.


Staff Contact

For questions or further information please contact Jake Vreeburg with the House Republican Policy Committee by email or at 2-1374.

 

[1] See Committee Report 115-35, at 2
[2][2] Id.
[3] See Committee Report 115-35, at 3
[4] See Committee Report 115-35, at 4
[5] See Committee Report 115-35, at 5
[6] See Committee Report 115-35, at 6
[7] Id.
[8] Id.
[9] See Committee Report 115-35, at 7
[10] Id.
[11] See Committee Report 115-35, at 8
[12] Id.

115th Congress