The top Senate and House Republicans on veterans issues called on President Donald Trump Thursday to lift the federal hiring freeze at the Department of Veterans Affairs for doctors, nurses and other caregivers.
"One of our government's highest priorities -- and VA's single most important mission -- is to provide timely, high-quality care to the men and women who have bravely served our nation in uniform," Sen. Johnny Isakson and Rep. Phil Roe said in a letter to Trump.
"On behalf of the over six million veterans nationwide who rely on the health care system, we are writing to respectfully request that you provide guidance indicating that exempting VA direct patient care providers is consistent with the tenets of and latitude permitted in your January 23rd Executive Order pertaining to a Federal civilian employee hiring freeze," the letter said.
The letter went out as the VA and Defense Department scrambled to cope with the Trump hiring freeze that has spread confusion across federal agencies on implementation of the order.
At the VA, spokesmen referred to the statement Tuesday by Acting Secretary Robert Snyder of his "intent" to file for public safety exemptions to the freeze to hire doctors, nurses, mental health clinicians, claims specialists and other urgently needed personnel.
When asked whether Snyder had begun submitting requests for exemptions or was drawing up a list, a spokesman declined comment and referred back to his statement: "The Department of Veterans Affairs intends to exempt anyone it deems necessary for public safety, including front-line caregivers."
It was unclear how the White House Office of Personnel Management would deal with requests for exemptions, but The Washington Post quoted a White House spokesman as saying that "public safety" can be construed as "public health."
The memorandum that went out with Trump's executive order Monday on the freeze stated 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."
However, a guidance memo obtained by Federal News Radio from the Office of Management and Budget on how the freeze should be put into effect said that exemptions to the freeze for public safety or other reasons should be "limited."
In issuing the across-the-board federal hiring freeze, Trump made clear that the uniformed military would be exempt. He said as he signed the order "except for the military, except for the military," but there had been doubt about whether the order would apply to new hires for the 740,000 DoD civilian workforce.
Pentagon spokesmen confirmed Wednesday that the freeze would apply to DoD civilians, but there appeared to be room for public safety exemptions on hiring. A DoD official told Defense News that new Defense Secretary James Mattis can exempt from the hiring freeze any position "that he deems necessary to meet national security or public safety responsibilities."
Veterans currently make up more than 30 percent of the DoD's civilian employees, and they also make up a large proportion of those applying for jobs. Hiring veterans was made a top priority for all agencies under a 2009 executive order signed by former President Barack Obama on the Employment of Veterans in the Federal Government.
In an address at a Congressional Republican meeting in Philadelphia on Thursday, Trump made no direct reference to the hiring freeze in reviewing the accomplishments of his first week in office, but said he was moving to create a "lean, efficient government."
"We will rebuild our military and take care of our veterans," he said.
"We're working very hard with our veterans; we're going to do something very special with our veterans," said Trump, who argued during the campaign for allowing veterans more choice on private care.
In a letter to Trump on Wednesday, 55 Senate and House Democrats urged him to lift the hiring freeze at the VA, which has an estimated 2,000 openings, and continue to hire veterans at all federal agencies.
"While there can be no debate that the federal government, including VA, should be more efficient in its delivery of services to all Americans, a hiring freeze at VA will delay veterans' access to health care and resolution of their disability claims," the letter said.
The Democrats argued that public safety exemptions for the VA in hiring would not be enough to clear up the huge backlog of more than 450,000 claims and appeals for benefits.
"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," the Democrats' letter said.
"There's a level of confusion right now that's certainly not helping" at the VA and other agencies on the implementation of the hiring freeze and the exemptions process, said Katherine Kidder, a fellow in the Military, Veterans, and Society Program and the Center for a New American Security.
"It seems the VA is trying to work around [the freeze], at least for communities where there's real emergency" in the quality of care and the appointments backlog, Kidder said. At the DoD, there is concern that active-duty uniformed personnel might be moved into critical but vacant civilian positions, she said.
The open question is whether the freeze is "a true move to increase government efficiency or a political maneuver" to fulfill a campaign pledge, Kidder said.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.