Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., took the lead on a letter to VA's chief of staff.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., took the lead on a letter to VA's chief of staff. Carolyn Kaster/AP

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VA Denies Accusations of Restricting Hiring at Local Facilities

Senators say new policy was initiated to push veterans toward private sector care.

The Veterans Affairs Department on Thursday pushed back against reports that it is restricting hiring at its local facilities nationwide, saying it has only tightened a freeze at its central office in Washington, D.C.

VA’s rebuttal came after a group of Democratic senators wrote to Peter O’Rourke, the department’s chief of staff, accusing the agency of instituting “additional bureaucratic layers of approval for hiring frontline employees.” The senators, led by Jon Tester, D-Mont, the ranking member on the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, pointed to a memorandum from February that they said restricted the number of positions field offices could hire directly without first seeking approval from headquarters. In April 2017, VA lifted a hiring freeze on most Veterans Health Administration and Veterans Benefits Administration positions, but still required approval from the under secretary and the chief of staff.

The senators said VA was severely restricting the number of positions local facilities could hire without first getting such approval. Curt Cashour, a VA spokesman, said there was a “misunderstanding” and the senators’ accusations were “false.” Instead, he said, the memo concerned only an ongoing hiring freeze at VA’s central office. He maintained that moratorium would not impact recruiting efforts in the field.

“It’s not having any impact on hiring and recruiting anywhere outside of VA central office in Washington,” Cashour said.

Eliminating positions in Washington would actually enable the department to send more resources to the field, he said.

“Under President Trump, VA is committed to ensuring local offices and facilities throughout the department have all of the staff they need,” Cashour explained. “This includes eliminating duplication and top-heavy, bureaucratic management structures within our headquarters so those resources can be redirected to the field.”

Marnee Banks, a spokeswoman for Tester, noted the memo made no specific reference to the central office and said VA was changing course as a result of congressional pushback. Even the central office freeze would have a "crippling effect" on hiring, she said, as it would affect human resources positions. 

VA has long struggled with a high vacancy rate, though recently ousted Secretary David Shulkin said the figure was in line with what any large organization should expect. The department hired 40,000 workers in 2017, but due to attrition and turnover saw a net gain of just 8,300 employees. The department maintains 33,000 vacancies, which the Democrats warned could worsen under their interpretation of the recent memo.

“We are very concerned with the process outlined in this memo, and the impact it will have on veterans seeking care and benefits at VA facilities across the country,” they wrote. “While we are certain that there may be positions across the enterprise that may not need to be filled, it is disturbing to think that VA may be disadvantaging its own facilities in order to push more veteran care into the private sector.”

They asked for information about the true purpose for the central office oversight, how long it takes to provide hiring approval, the number of vacancies in positions now requiring a waiver and what communications VA has had with field staff and labor representatives.

Cashour said VA appreciated their concerns, would respond to their letter directly and would clarify that the memo “does not apply to positions in the field.”

This story has been updated with additional comment.