Republicans Seek Assurance That Certain VA Health Jobs Are Exempt From Hiring Freeze

Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., is one of the lawmakers who inquired about VA's status during the freeze. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., is one of the lawmakers who inquired about VA's status during the freeze. David Goldman/AP

The Republican congressional committee chairmen overseeing Veterans Affairs are seeking assurance from the president that certain jobs at the department are exempt from the federal hiring freeze.

Rep. David “Phil” Roe of Tennessee and Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia sent a Jan. 26 letter to President Trump asking that he “provide guidance indicating that exempting VA direct patient care providers is consistent with the [tenets] of and latitude” included in his Jan. 23 memorandum ordering the federal civilian hiring freeze.

“One of our government's highest priorities -- and VA's single most important mission -- is to provide timely, high-quality care to the men and women who have bravely served our nation in uniform,” the lawmakers wrote. “A robust clinical workforce is vital to achieving that goal. As VA direct care providers play a critical public health role, we believe that this action is in line with your intent to exempt positions necessary to meet public safety from the effects of this hiring freeze.”

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The hiring freeze memorandum Trump signed said that agency heads "may exempt from the hiring freeze any positions that it deems necessary to meet national security or public safety responsibilities." The freeze "applies to all executive departments and agencies regardless of the sources of their operational and programmatic funding, excepting military personnel," the order stated.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer in his Jan. 24 briefing said the hiring freeze applied to the VA, and in response to a question about the freeze and critical vacancies at the VA said this: “What we need to do, whether it’s the VA or any other agency, is make sure that we’re hiring smartly and effectively and efficiently. And I think the VA in particular, if you look at the problems that have plagued people, hiring more people isn’t the answer, it’s hiring the right people, putting the procedures in place that ensure that our veterans -- whether it’s health care, mortgages or the other services the VA provides to those who have served our nation -- get the services that they’ve earned. And right now, the system’s broken.”

The comments left some confused over whether the VA could claim some exemptions from the hiring freeze. 

Acting VA Secretary Robert Snyder issued a statement this week saying that the department “intends to exempt [from the hiring freeze] anyone it deems necessary for public safety, including frontline caregivers.”

Trump’s nominee for VA secretary, Dr. David Shulkin, an Obama appointee who is currently undersecretary for health overseeing the Veterans Health Administration, has emphasized repeatedly the need to recruit and bring onboard more medical personnel to improve health care access and delivery to veterans. In July, he said applications for clinical positions across the board at the department were down 78 percent. A VA spokesman on Thursday would not provide any numbers on job vacancies at the department, but news reports have quoted Shulkin saying as recently as last fall that the department has as many as 45,000 job openings.

Isakson, who last spring introduced the Veterans First Act, which in part aimed to make it easier for VA to recruit and retain senior health care executives, worked closely with former VA Secretary Bob McDonald and Shulkin to provide the department with more hiring and firing flexibilities. The bill failed to gain any traction in the last Congress, though.

“We must ensure that, while we work toward our mutual goal of VA health care reform, VA is not further hampered by an inability to recruit high-quality clinicians to meet the immediate health care needs of our veterans,” Isakson and Roe wrote in the Jan. 26 letter to Trump.

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