Leading Republicans Ask Trump to Exempt VA Direct Providers From Hiring Freeze

Philadelphia VA hospital / AP

Two leading Republican lawmakers are asking President Donald Trump to exempt Department of Veterans Affairs direct patient care providers from the federal hiring freeze he imposed earlier this week.

Sen. Johnny Isakson (R., Ga.) and Rep. Phil Roe (R., Tenn.), who chair the Committees on Veterans Affairs in their respective chambers, wrote a letter to Trump on Thursday asking him to provide "guidance indicating that exempting VA direct patient care providers is consistent with the tenants of and latitude permitted" in the executive order he issued on Monday ordering a hiring freeze on federal civilian employees.

White House spokesman Sean Spicer confirmed on Tuesday that the executive order applied to thousands of unfilled jobs at the VA, explaining that the freeze was necessary to ensure the government is hiring "effectively and efficiently." Robert Snyder, acting VA secretary, said later that the agency would exempt anyone deemed necessary for public safety. Other positions, such as those in the military, deemed necessary for national security and public safety were also exempt.

"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," Isakson and Roe wrote Thursday. "A robust clinical workforce is vital to achieving that goal. As VA direct care providers play a critical public health role, we believe that this action is in line with your intent to exempt positions necessary to meet public safety from the effects of this hiring freeze."

The lawmakers cited the continuing problems at the VA's nationwide network of hospitals, which has struggled to reduce wait times for veterans and solve systemic management problems since the wait list controversy that broke nearly three years ago.

"As you have rightfully recognized many times before, the VA healthcare system is currently in a state of crisis," Isakson and Roe wrote. "We must ensure that, while we work toward our mutual goal of VA health care reform, VA is not further hampered by an inability to recruit high-quality clinicians to meet the immediate health care needs of our veterans."

There are currently over 547,000 patients waiting more than 30 days for care at VA hospitals, according to the most recent data published by the agency.

Trump made reforming the VA a focal point of his presidential campaign. The president has selected David Shulkin, a physician who served as the VA's undersecretary for health during the Obama administration, to serve as VA secretary.