By Sandra Basu
WASHINGTON—Shortly after taking office last month, President Donald Trump ordered a freeze on the hiring of federal civilian employees across the executive branch, raising questions on how the VA would be affected.
“As part of this freeze, no vacant positions existing at noon on January 22, 2017, may be filled and no new positions may be created, except in limited circumstances. This order does not include or apply to military personnel,” the executive order stated.
It further said that “the head of any executive department or agency may exempt from the hiring freeze any positions that it deems necessary to meet national security or public safety responsibilities,” and that OPM “may grant exemptions from this freeze where those exemptions are otherwise necessary.”
The hiring freeze expires upon implementation of a plan that OPM must recommend within 90 days of the executive order to “reduce the size of the federal government’s workforce through attrition.”
As for the VA, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said last month that the VA system is “broken” and the hiring freeze is meant to “pause” hiring and “allow there to be an analysis” of what could make the system better.
“What we need to do, whether it is the VA or any other agency is make sure we are hiring smartly, 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 is hiring the right people, putting procedures in place that ensure that our veterans—whether it is healthcare, mortgages or the other services VA provides to the nation—get the services they have earned,” Spicer said.
In a statement, Acting VA Secretary Rob Snyder said the agency “intends to exempt anyone it deems necessary for public safety, including frontline caregivers.” Snyder issued a memorandum to that effect on January 27, a few days after the hiring freeze was announced.
The news of the hiring freeze created waves of concern on Capitol Hill and among some advocacy groups. In response, American Legion National Commander Charles E. Schmidt said that, while Snyder has assured them that frontline caregivers will be exempted, the veterans’ service organization has “strong concerns, however, about how this will impact the veterans who have been waiting too long to have their claims processed.”
Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Ranking Member Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) said “this executive order will make it harder for veterans to get in the door at the VA and receive the timely benefits to which they are entitled, and that is totally unacceptable.”
“The VA is already struggling to keep the promises our country has made to the folks who served, because VA health clinics and hospitals across the country are understaffed, and VA staff are too often unable to process their disability, education and survivor benefits in a timely manner,” Tester said in a statement.
In a letter, he and Rep. Tim Walz (D-MI), along with 53 Democrats and independent members of Congress, demanded that Trump exempt the entire VA and all veterans seeking federal jobs from his executive order.
“We urge you to re-evaluate this hiring freeze and take into account the effect it will have on veterans who will have to wait longer for earned benefits—whether it’s disability, survivor or education benefits, or whether it’s vocational rehabilitation or job training services,” they wrote.
They explained that “more than 450,000 appeals are pending—that means that more than 450,000 veterans are waiting for the U.S. government to provide them with benefits earned, while a disability was incurred while serving in our armed services.”
Legislation that would streamline VA’s community care programs into one program and expand VA’s caregiver program to veterans of all eras was signed into law earlier this month..
The good news from a recent consultant study is that, overall, the VA healthcare system is generally equal or better than others when inpatient and outpatient quality is measured.