Report reveals concerns with VHA expedited hiring process for medical staff

WASHINGTON — A new watchdog report is raising concerns about the expedited hiring process for some Veterans Health Administration (VHA) medical staff that was implemented during the pandemic.

After the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the VHA was short-staffed while facing a growing need.

In response, it made a change to allow some of the vetting steps in the hiring process to be completed after the new employee started the job.

It was meant to get clinical workers like doctors and nurses on the job faster to assist patients.

But a new report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) is exposing potential risks because it found VHA’s main hiring system isn’t accurately tracking if all of the screening steps have actually been completed.

“There are inherent risks in bringing staff on board that have not been fully vetted,” the report said. “These potential risks include the possibility that new staff who have not completed certain onboarding processes, such as receiving a fingerprint-based criminal history check, may gain access to sensitive information and controlled substances.”

“The structure of that process needs to be done properly,” said James Moss, Assistant Director for Health Policy for Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW). “If it’s not done right or if it’s not done at all, then that information is either missing or incomplete, and that doesn’t help.”

The report points to onboarding steps like verifying professional credentials, completing criminal background checks and fingerprinting.

“You want to make sure you’re able to track the information of all these onboarding tasks to make sure that the people who you’re hiring to treat veterans are qualified and able to provide quality care,” said Sharon Silas, a Director with the Healthcare team at GAO. “Even if you’re expediting the process, you’re still responsible for making sure that you have the correct information about these providers and have a good understanding of their history and any potential issues with them providing care to veterans.”

The GAO report lists recommended changes to make sure VHA is completing all of the hiring steps.

The recommended changes include having the Under Secretary for Health require all offices involved in the onboarding process to monitor the process and completion dates, and it calls for clear and comprehensive guidance for entering the data into the system.

In response, the VA said it agrees with the recommended changes and expects them to be fully implemented by August 2023.

“It’s good that the target date is for this year,” said Moss. “That means to me, and for organizations like the VFW, that they’re going to be looking at their processes. Not only that, they’re going to be sending out a more comprehensive mandate.”