Personnel issues show underlying need for stronger lines of authority at VHA

As David Shulkin, former undersecretary in charge of the Veterans Health Administration, steps up to take over the entire Veterans Affairs Department, the Government Accountability Office is hoping that he’ll prove to be receptive to changes in the way the VHA handles personnel issues.

A recent GAO investigation found that at a number of VHA facilities, lack of knowledge, skill and personnel in the human resources offices is hampering the administration in achieving its medical mission.

Robert Goldenkoff, director of strategic issues at GAO, said on Veterans Affairs month that these problems in HR are creating a detrimental cycle, causing high turnover, which leads to greater workloads placed on valuable personnel, which causes undue stress and prompts burnout, which leads to higher turnover.

“The good news is that the administrative staff, the clinical staff, they’re really passionate about what they do and are dedicated to the mission of the agency,” he told the Federal Drive with Tom Temin. “But at the same time, when there’s all this flux going on, when it’s just a difficult environment to work in, when the human resource function doesn’t help in supporting the frontline clinical staff, that certainly affects recruitment and also retention.”

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Goldenkoff said this dynamic was evident across a sample of VHA facilities GAO visited, which were chosen to have a mix of urban and rural facilities, demonstrate a wide complexity of services and serve large numbers of veterans.

He said the issues laid mainly within VHA’s efforts in hiring clinical staff and employee engagement. VHA could become more efficient and effective, he said, if it would focus on improving in these areas. But to make those improvements stick, VHA will also have to take a look at its own accountability.

“Underlying all of these personnel issues is the fact that there needs to be stronger lines of authority between the department of Veterans Affairs, VHA and the individual medical centers,” Goldenkoff said.

GAO found that while VHA creates and implements policies regarding HR issues, the functions of these policies are all implemented at the facility level, leading to disconnects within the organization. Goldenkoff said that VHA needs to strengthen its performance management system, and improve its employee engagement efforts to make strides toward rectifying these issues.

VHA agreed to all 12 of the recommendations GAO made.

“I think VHA is an unfortunate case study,” Goldenkoff said. “It really emphasizes the importance of paying attention to your people. At the end of the day, the quality and composition of the workforce needs to be commensurate with the workload. Otherwise, you have mission shortfalls and other problems.”

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