Shulkin, currently chief executive of the Veterans Health Administration, has repeatedly cited the need to hire more caregivers at the VA to cut wait times. In addition, the acting head of the VA, Robert Snyder, said Tuesday that he was looking for ways around the Trump freeze.
"The Department of Veterans Affairs intends to exempt anyone it deems necessary for public safety, including front-line caregivers" from the freeze, Snyder said in a statement Tuesday. He was chief of staff before VA Secretary Bob McDonald stepped down.
The White House appeared ready Wednesday to agree with Snyder on the need for public safety exemptions to the freeze at the VA, but the practical effects were unclear. A White House spokesman said "public safety" can be construed to include "public health," The Washington Post reported.
Shulkin, who has headed the department's largest division for the past two years, has argued for hiring more doctors and nurses at the VA in response to the 2014 scandals over lengthy patient waits for appointments that led to the resignation of former VA secretary and retired Army chief of staff, Eric Shinseki.
In an interview with NPR last fall, Shulkin said there were "too many" job openings at the department, and he stressed the need to bring more caregivers into the system. "I need to fill every one of those openings in order to make sure that we're doing the very best for our veterans." Currently, the VA is seeking to hire more than 2,000 personnel.
In announcing earlier this month that Shulkin was his choice to head the VA, Trump said: "I'll tell you about David -- he's fantastic, he's fantastic. He will do a truly great job. One of the commitments I made is that we're going to straighten out the whole situation for our veterans."
No date has been set yet for Shulkin's Senate confirmation hearing. If confirmed, he would preside over a sprawling $180 billion department that includes the nation's largest health care system with 1,700 sites serving nearly nine million vets annually with a workforce of 300,000.
Several veterans service organizations said they were encouraged by acting VA Secretary Snyder's intention to seek "public safety" exemptions to the hiring freeze, but the groups also pointed to general confusion at federal agencies over how the freeze will be implemented.
In signing the freeze memorandum Monday, Trump said it would apply across the board for all federal agencies "except for the military, except for the military." However, there was uncertainty at the Defense Department on whether there would be a public safety exemption on hiring for the Pentagon's civilian workforce of about 740,000.
The Trump memorandum stated, "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 memo said, and "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.
"In addition, the director of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) may grant exemptions from this freeze where those exemptions are otherwise necessary," the memo said.
At a White House briefing Tuesday, Press Secretary Sean Spicer said the freeze applied to the VA, which prompted Snyder to issue the statement on seeking public safety exemptions from OPM. "I think the VA in particular, if you look at the problems that have plagued people, hiring more people isn't the answer," Spicer said.
The American Legion, the Disabled American Veterans, and American Veterans (AMVETS) all favored public safety exemptions at the VA for hiring caregivers and also personnel working to clear up claims backlogs.
"We're giving Mr. Snyder credit" on the exemptions, said Louis Celli, director of national veterans affairs for the 2.4 million member American Legion. "We're taking his word that this is a done deal. We want to be sure that the VHA did not fall under the hiring freeze."
Garry Augustine, executive director of the Disabled American Veterans, said of department officials, "They have vacancies they've got to fill. We hope the president will be considerate of the access issues at the VA."
He added, "There wasn't a lot of clarification" in the Trump hiring freeze memo. "We don't know how this is going to play out, frankly. We're all scratching our heads."
Similar concerns were expressed by John Hoellwarth, national communications director for AMVETS. "The idea of having this freeze -- it's concerning to us," he said. Dramatic improvements were already underway at the VA, and "it's hard to imagine they'll be able to do that with fewer people."
In Congress, two House Democrats have already introduced legislation to lift the hiring freeze at the VA.
Reps. Kurt Schrader of Oregon and Seth Moulton of Massachusetts cited reports showing that "there are thousands of vacancies at the VA nationwide including hundreds of Primary Care Providers (PCP) and nurse practitioner vacancies."
"Placing this hiring freeze on the VA is an absolutely unacceptable way to treat the men and women who have risked life and limb in the service of our country," Schrader said.
"All of the progress the VA has made on reducing wait times will come to a screeching halt," said Moulton, who served four tours as a Marine officer in Iraq.
In a separate statement, Rep. Julia Brownley, a California Democrat, urged Trump to "reconsider his ill-conceived hiring freeze, which will harm our nation's veterans." She said "many of the individuals in the pipeline for jobs are veterans, as 33% of VA employees are themselves veterans. The hiring freeze will deny needed jobs for these qualified heroes."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.