Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., said the hiring freeze threatened services to veterans.

Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., said the hiring freeze threatened services to veterans. AP Photo/Molly Riley

VA Hearing Spurs Divide Over Hiring Freeze, Bonus Abuse

VA official says there's no evidence yet of the hiring freeze hurting the department.

A congressional hearing Wednesday slated to explore the “path to reform” at the Veterans Affairs Department broke down along partisan lines, with Democrats taking the opportunity to decry President Trump’s federal hiring freeze and Republicans criticizing the abuse of incentive payments and a lack of health care choice.

While Rep. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee’s National Security Panel, said time was “of the essence” to remove obstacles that prevent veterans from receiving private health care, Ranking Member Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., called Trump’s hiring moratorium a “more immediate threat.”

Pamela Mitchell, VA’s acting assistance secretary, said the department currently has 48,000 vacancies. Three-quarters of those fall under the wide swath of exemptions the department defined under Trump’s national security carve out, leaving 12,000 positions that are currently going unfilled.

More than 120 members of Congress have signed a letter to Trump asking him to reconsider the freeze. At Wednesday’s hearing, Lynch derided the policy as hurting both veterans’ services and their ability to find jobs.

“It is having a drastic impact on the ability of our veterans to transition back to civilian life,” Lynch said. “It is freezing the opportunity of returning veterans to go to work.” Lynch noted that Trump, in his address to Congress on Tuesday, said veterans delivered for the nation “and now we must deliver for them.”

“The hiring freeze will make it extremely difficult to fulfill that promise,” he said.

Other Democrats on the panel complained that no positions at the Veterans Benefits Administration were part of VA’s exemptions, opening the possibility for the claims backlog to once again spike. In 2015, VBA celebrated cutting the backlog to under 100,000 claims for the first time since 2009, after it peaked in 2013 at more than 611,000 pending cases. The backlog has remained relatively stable in that time. Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Md., said the hiring freeze could lead to the “needs of the agency not being met” and the “strengths of the agency could be imperiled.” Mitchell, however, was not convinced.

“I have not seen anything since the hiring freeze began indicating anything like that,” she said, though she noted it was still early in the process and promised to report back to the committee. She also said the department is still examining whether it will need to request additional exemptions.

In addition to complaints of lack of access to private care, DeSantis scolded the department for a recent inspector general report that found significant waste and abuse in VA’s recruitment, relocation and retention program, or three-Rs. The IG estimated VA would spend $158.7 million in unsupported incentive payments between fiscal years 2015 and 2019 due to a lack of controls.

Mitchell said VA has already put in place new measures to prevent improper incentive payments and to recoup benefits paid out to individuals who do not fulfill their service obligations. VA has reduced spending on the three-Rs by 50 percent since 2011, she said, despite the department’s workforce growing by 22.5 percent in that time. It has tightened and centralized the process for paying out incentives to senior executives, resulting in spending of just $17,000 in fiscal 2017 to date.

Mitchell noted, however, VA must compete in tough labor markets for highly skilled workers, and the three-Rs were vital to maintain its workforce.

“The three-Rs are important human resources tools to help us remain competitive recruiting and retaining the best personnel to serve our veterans,” she said.