VA is looking to fill key medical positions, starting with the top health care position in the department

The Department of Veterans Affairs may finally fill its senior health care position later this month, which could lead to even more doctors and nurses being hired in the coming months.

Last week, during testimony before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, the White House nominee for VA undersecretary of health said that one of his top priorities for the job would be to improve recruitment and retention for clinical care positions at the Veterans Health Administration.

“The sacred mission of VA healthcare simply cannot be fulfilled without having people to do it, talented healthcare professionals who put the mission above all else,” said Shereef Elnahal, who is currently CEO of University Hospital in Newark, NJ “So that’s a priority for me.”

At the start of 2022, VA had about 50,000 open positions in health administration, including about 2,000 doctors and 15,000 nurses. Department officials have made hiring such specialists a priority in recent years, but have struggled in some areas in the face of increased public demand for healthcare workers.

Elnahal said part of the effort to fill these positions should be to better market the VA as an ideal place to work for potential applicants.

“In the VA, there’s a particularly compelling mission that can be shared more widely in professional society forums and literally every other forum where these talented heroes seek employment,” he said. “And one thing I would do if confirmed is investigate how we advertise VA as an opportunity for these professionals across the country.”

Elnahal also vowed to continue initiatives announced by VA Secretary Denis McDonough earlier this year that would improve pay, benefits and job flexibility for VA employees.

These changes, he said, would not only boost hiring efforts, but also the retention of existing workers, filling critical workforce gaps.

The undersecretary at the health post himself has been one such vacant post in recent years. The Veterans Health Administration has not had a Senate-confirmed head since January 2016, when David Shulkin stepped down to take over as department secretary.

Since then, the department has undertaken many major health care initiatives — including an overhaul of the community care program and a 10-year, $16 billion overhaul of the VA medical records system — without a permanent leader.

Committee members noted this absence during the hearing and warned Elnahal that he will need to address many of these lingering issues alongside future challenges.

White House officials hailed Elnahal as the right choice for the responsibility, pointing to his work during the pandemic as evidence of his leadership abilities. In 2021, he set up one of the first vaccination sites in New Jersey and oversaw a host of quality of care and patient safety improvements at the hospital during his tenure there.

Elnahal previously served as New Jersey’s health commissioner and was the first Muslim cabinet member from New Jersey in the state’s history. He also worked as Deputy Assistant Assistant Secretary of Health for Quality, Safety and Value at VA from 2016-2018, overseeing quality of care issues.

Committee members are due to vote on his nomination at a business meeting on May 4. The full Senate is expected to hold a confirmation vote on Elnahal in the coming weeks.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, DC since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned him numerous accolades, 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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