It's crunch time at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

CMS, in keeping with a new law, is expanding. It added Medicare prescription drug discount cards this year, will add new preventive services next year and will provide a prescription drug benefit Jan. 1, 2006. They represent the biggest changes in the Medicare program since its creation in 1965.

At least 500 new employees will be needed to provide the expanded services, CMS said. That's double the normal, annual hiring at the agency, which has about 4,600 employees.

When it hires, CMS also will be keeping an eye on its workforce demographics and hoping to attract young professionals interested in a federal career. Many CMS employees soon will be nearing retirement -- three-quarters of the CMS workforce is 40 or older, and nearly half is older than 50.

Of course, CMS also has to keep up with its other work -- processing more than 1 billion claims each year and overseeing Medicare benefits for nearly 42 million Americans.

To ramp up, CMS has volunteered for a pilot project that taps into private-sector practices to streamline federal hiring. The pilot, sponsored by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, also includes the Education Department and the National Nuclear Security Administration.

"The whole idea is to work with a public-private partnership to have them help us hire people quicker than before and help us find the expertise in areas we don't normally market to," said Charlene Brown, deputy chief operating officer at CMS.

As its first step, CMS took a new approach to staging a job fair. Personnel officials sorted through job applications and looked for people who could be hired as actuaries, pharmacists, economists, technology specialists and general health insurance specialists.

After winnowing the list, CMS sent invitations to select applicants, asking them to attend a September job fair on the agency's Baltimore campus. The invitations tried to avoid government jargon and use what Brown called "plain English" to describe CMS work and job opportunities.

For the job fair, CMS tried to match the invited applicant's resume with the right manager (for example, an applicant with a strong background in finance would be steered to an interview with an agency financial manager). Managers were given an advance package on the job fair so they would be prepared to discuss job opportunities and, in some cases, offer jobs on the spot.

More than 500 applicants attended the job fair, and about 50 were identified as promising hires. Pending background checks, CMS hopes to bring them on board.

CMS also is trying new recruiting strategies, especially for technological jobs. The agency is working with a company to market CMS in areas where high-tech employees live and work. CMS hopes that using a focused approach, rather than relying on the usual job postings, will allow the agency to better compete against corporations for talented tech workers.

The agency also is revamping how it hires health insurance specialists. A computer program that asks applicants "yes and no" questions is being modified to include an analysis of writing skills that should make it easier to identify top-notch applicants, Brown said.

In the past, CMS typically has taken 90 days to hire an applicant -- that's from the time the manager announces a job opening to the day that the new employee walks in the door. With help from its partners, CMS hopes to cut hiring time to 34 days for many applicants as it races the clock to prepare for the rollout of the prescription drug benefit in 2006. CMS officials emphasize that they will not speed hiring if it jeopardizes quality recruitment.

The pilot project has been dubbed "Extreme Hiring Makeover," playing off popular TV programs that transform people and homes. In addition to the Partnership for Public Service, it is sponsored by organizations that specialize in recruitment, such as Monster Government Solutions, Brainbench, Korn/Ferry International, ePredix, AIRS, the Human Capital Institute and CPS Human Resources Services.

Max Stier, president of the Partnership for Public Service, said the project hopes to develop models and information useful to other agencies facing workforce challenges. Hiring in federal agencies "is a collection of different problems and not a single one, and the idea that there is a single fix is not an approach that will succeed," he said.

E-mail: barrs@washpost.com