VA Secretary-designate Dr. David Shulkin testifies before the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee.

VA Secretary-designate Dr. David Shulkin testifies before the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee. Alex Brandon/AP

VA Nominee Leaves Door Open For More Hiring Freeze Job Exemptions

Dr. David Shulkin said he would seek more waivers from the White House if the claims backlog starts to spike.

President Trump’s nominee to lead the Veterans Affairs Department on Wednesday said he would go back to the White House to ask for more job exemptions from the hiring freeze if necessary.

Dr. David Shulkin said if the veterans’ disability and pension claims backlog starts spiking again and it impacts the department’s ability to provide benefits expeditiously, then he will look to exempt jobs within the Veterans Benefits Administration.

“I spoke to the acting undersecretary [Tom Murphy] today, who has assured me he has metrics on what’s happening to these claims, and if we are seeing a big concern with that, I do plan on going back and addressing that,” Shulkin told lawmakers during his Senate confirmation hearing. “The problem is, without access to benefits, you cannot get access to health care. These two are connected.” Shulkin, an Obama appointee, currently leads the Veterans Health Administration, VA’s largest agency.

Democrats on the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee expressed concern over the impact the hiring freeze could have on delivering benefits and health care to vets. Last week, the VA released a list of wide-ranging jobs it intends to exempt from Trump’s governmentwide hiring freeze, from medical and law enforcement personnel to cemetery caretakers. The positions were mostly health-care related and housed within VHA, but there were some jobs within the National Cemetery Administration that also were exempted. VBA was not part of the hiring freeze exemption, so if the department wants to hire more claims processors, or other administrative functions critical to keeping the backlog from jumping while the freeze is in effect, it will have to seek waivers for those positions.

VA struggled for years with a massive claims backlog; it hit a high of more than 600,000 in 2013. The department worked hard to get it under control, and hoped to eliminate it by the end of 2015, which didn’t happen. The backlog currently is 97,119 claims, according to department statistics.

Shulkin said there are 45,300 job vacancies through the VA, most of them within the VHA. Of that number, 37,000 positions are exempt from Trump’s hiring freeze. The Jan. 23 presidential memorandum authorizing the freeze 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. The memo also directed the heads of the Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Personnel Management to come up with a plan to reduce the government workforce through attrition within 90 days. The hiring freeze remains in effect until the administration completes a workforce reduction plan.

OMB on Tuesday released more detailed hiring freeze guidance to federal agencies, elaborating on which jobs are critical to national security or public safety and noting that positions at the U.S. Postal Service, CIA and Office of the Director of National Intelligence also are all exempt. The Defense Department on Thursday plans to release more specific guidance on the hiring freeze.

Shulkin, who received a warm reception from Democrats and Republicans during his hearing, said repeatedly that he was opposed to privatizing the VA and that it would not happen on his watch. He said he favors an “integrated system” where the VA and the private sector work together to deliver the best health care for veterans.