VA officially exempts some health, contracting professionals from hiring freeze

Following repeated calls from members of Congress, the Veterans Affairs Department is exempting some health care professionals from President Donald Trump’s recently announced, short-term hiring freeze.

Exemptions include medical center directors, doctors, nurses, physicians assistants, pharmacists, therapists and others at the department’s medical centers, outpatient clinics and other health centers, acting VA Secretary Rob Snyder said in a Jan. 27 memo.

“[These positions] provide direct patient care, without which the safety and welfare of veterans would be at stake,” he wrote.

VA is also exempting some construction, contracting and project management positions, as the department activates leases and begins construction projects at more than 20 medical centers and department health facilities.

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“To ensure veterans are able to continue accessing state-of-the-art facilities and the quality care they deserve, I am granting exemptions to ensure the minimum staffing required to become or remain operational and to ensure that the safety and health standards required by law are met,” the memo said.

The VA secretary may grant exemptions to some support positions at the department’s Office of Acquisitions, Logistics and Construction on a case-by-case basis, Snyder said.

In addition, exemptions apply at the National Cemetery Administration, specifically positions that deal directly with burial services.

This comes after 55 members of Congress wrote to Trump this week, asking that he exempt the entire department, along with any veterans looking for work.

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.), the ranking members of the Senate and House Veterans Affairs committees, respectively, led the charge, urging the President to consider how the freeze may impact veterans’ health care and backlog of more than 450,000 disability claims.

“For years, VA has faced chronic medical personnel shortages, particularly in rural areas,” lawmakers wrote. “As a result of the hiring freeze, the department’s inability to hire clinicians and the administrative support teams to schedule appointments will have a direct impact on the number of veterans on waiting lists at facilities across the country.”

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They also asked the President to absolve any veteran looking for a federal job. Veterans made up 32 percent of new government hires in fiscal 2015.

Former VA Secretary Bob McDonald has long said that recruiting and retaining qualified medical center administrators and doctors is a challenge for the department. In February 2016, McDonald told Congress that applications for available positions at the VA were down nearly 75 percent. Roughly 43,000 medical and health-related positions and 35 were unfilled as of March 2016.

The VA memo doesn’t discount the possibility that more positions could be exempt.

“VA will only exempt those positions from the hiring freeze that meet the intent of the presidential memorandum dated Jan. 23, 2017,” Snyder wrote. “This is interim guidance and will be updated as we receive additional information from the Office of Personnel Management and Office of Management and Budget.”

Jan. 25 guidance from acting OMB Director Mark Sandy indicated that agencies would receive more guidance from the agency.

In a Jan. 23 executive memo, Trump announced that the hiring freeze — which temporarily prohibits agencies from making new hires until OMB develops a long-term plan within the next 90 days to reduce the size of the federal workforce through attrition — applies to all executive branch departments and agencies, including the Defense Department.