Veterans Affairs (VA) Health Administrator – A Day in the Life

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The Veterans Health Administration is the largest integrated healthcare system in America, comprising 1,243 healthcare facilities and some 320,000 employees who serve more than nine million veterans every year. In 1975, there were two million veterans over the age of 65, but that number is now closer to ten million. Health issues have become more chronic and more acute, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have created a higher demand for mental health provisions. Medical and health services managers are already in high demand for the upcoming decade, and the need is just as dire in veterans affairs.

The United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has made the reorganization of administrative functions and community care a top priority. This new plan requires the VA to hit certain industry benchmarks such as streamlined administrative processes, coordinated care, interoperable IT systems, effective medical record management, and prompt authorization, billing, and reimbursement.

Throughout all this, cost remains a significant concern. Delivering a wholescale transition through both cost-effective and compassionate means depends upon strong healthcare administrators, and as such, the VA has identified leadership excellence and high performing administrative candidates as critical factors in navigating the system’s overhaul and improvement.

In many ways, a VA health administrator’s job is similar to any other healthcare administrator’s job, but the specific demographic being served in the VA necessitates a unique set of responsibilities, skills, and education. As General Omar Bradley said in 1947: “We are dealing with veterans, not procedures; with their problems, not ours.”

Read on to get a look at a day in the life of a VA health administrator.

Work Environment

The VA is a government agency, and its organizational structure is therefore different than most privately-run medical facilities. Employees of the VA are paid on a general scale (GS) salary. Applicants must be U.S. citizens and may be required to pass a security background check or drug test.

The actual workplace setting for VA health administrators can vary across the various facilities that exist around the country, which include more than 170 medical centers and approximately 1,000 community-based outpatient clinics. However, the hiring entity will often be one of the VA’s main geographic areas.

Clinical Team

The VA health administration generally follows a top-down chain of command, but the chain is long and stretches across the country. Some VA health administrator job titles include chief of staff, assistant chief of staff, health systems specialist, administrative specialist, administrative officer, and administrative assistant.

Each job title may be applied to a specialty, such as geriatrics or mental health, but is expected to engage with its surrounding network of employees, patients, and care providers. Each employee works for both their division and the VA system as a whole.

Typical Job Responsibilities

VA health administrators are charged with the proper management of VA healthcare facilities and their departments. They must showcase strong leadership, communication, and analytical capabilities across the board. At a more granular level, some administrators may specialize in geriatric care, mental care, radiology, and so on.

Typical job responsibilities of a VA health administrator vary based on their precise job title and work environment. From administrative assistant up to chief of staff, VA health administrators have varying levels of authority but similar goals and priorities. Some typical job responsibilities include:

  • Providing supervision and guidance regarding regulatory practices
  • Ensuring a facility or department meets strategic benchmarks
  • Leading administration programs concerning matters such as equal opportunity employment, merit promotion, labor management, and position management
  • Planning and revising staff schedules and assignments to achieve an optimal workflow
  • Determining the resource needs of a facility or department and advising on adjusting resource allocations accordingly
  • Analyzing programmatic, budgetary, and fiscal data to inform facility-wide or department-wide policy
  • Setting the strategic agenda for the administration of a facility or department

In every case, it is the role of a VA health administrator to optimize the health and efficiency of a VA medical facility or a department within. There may not be much of a typical day in this role, especially with the dynamic shift the VA is undergoing at the moment, but as the VA continues its transition into a more accessible and streamlined health system, their focus should and will remain on best serving veterans first and foremost.

Required Skills & Knowledge

A VA health administrator must possess a unique blend of skills. Working for a government organization requires a particular understanding of bureaucracy, negotiation, and diligence. Running the administrative arm of a medical facility requires leadership, financial acuity, and a detailed eye for logistics. Serving a veteran population necessitates compassion, respect, and humility. VA health administrators incorporate all of the above into a single position and the flexibility to pivot between the different silos which make up the VA system.

To be an effective VA health administrator, a bachelor’s degree in a related field is a must. For higher level management positions, a graduate level degree, such as an MHA, is increasingly requested. In many cases, specialized experience may be substituted for education and vice versa, but a competitive candidate for a top-level position will have both specialized experience—preferably within the VA or another governmental institution—and a master’s degree in healthcare administration.

Certification Opportunities

While it is not necessary to begin work as a VA health administrator, the VA’s Technical Career Field Program (TCF) does provide two years of training in critically identified areas. Trainees are coached and supervised by a subject matter expert who is currently working within the trainee’s chosen VHA field. During this time, trainees receive salary, benefits, mentorship, training, and a stipend. After the two-year program is complete, trainees will be employed at their training site through a continued service agreement (CSA).

Specialty areas of note for prospective VA health administrators include compliance and business integrity (CBI), finance, health information management (HIM), and human resources management (HRM). The necessary qualifications for applicants vary according to program and posting. While there is not a single application one must fill out for the TCF, opportunities will be listed with a paired job opportunity on the VA’s career website.

Another certification alternative is in the private sector, where one can become board certified in healthcare management as a Fellow of the American College of Healthcare Executives (FACHE). Much more of a midcareer certification than a training option, the credentialing process here examines an applicant’s academic, professional, and civic experience in healthcare administration, culminating with a Board of Governors Examination. A master’s-level education and significant work experience are required to qualify for the exam. The certification can provide a sterling mark of distinction in a health administration career.

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