That’s likely to mean that the agency, which faces a shortage of thousands of doctors and nurses at the root of a patient wait-times scandal in 2014, will continue to recruit for medical personnel, suicide-prevention counselors and many other health-care jobs.
David Shulkin, Trump’s nominee for VA secretary who is now head of the agency’s sprawling health-care system, has said the agency urgently needs to hire more doctors and nurses.
Advocates for veterans had been alarmed by White House press secretary Sean Spicer’s assertion Tuesday that VA’s workforce of 312,000 employees is covered by the order Trump signed Monday.
“Right now, the system’s broken,” Spicer said of VA, explaining that a halt to hiring is meant as a “pause,” in part until Shulkin can settle into the job.
“And 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. “It’s hiring the right people, putting the procedures in place that ensure that our veterans — whether health care or mortgages or the other services that VA provides to those who have served our nation — get the services that they’ve earned.”
By Wednesday morning, though, the interpretation had softened to exempt new hires that fall into the category of “public safety.” A White House spokesman said “public safety” can be construed to include “public health.”
The American Legion, the country’s largest veterans service organization, said it is still concerned that the long backlog in appeals for benefits will linger if VA cannot hire staff to process paperwork.
“We have strong concerns, however, about how this will impact the veterans who have been waiting too long to have their claims processed,” National Commander Charles E. Schmidt said. “The sacrifices that these veterans have made must not be forgotten. VA has made progress in this area and it must continue to do so.”
Confusion over VA’s status followed similar uncertainty in recent days over hiring for the 750,000 Defense Department civilians. Uniformed military are exempt from the hiring freeze, but until late Tuesday, Defense officials were still sorting out what will happen with the civilian workforce that supports the military.
Word came then that DOD civilians are covered by the halt to hiring. But since Trump’s order gives agency heads wide latitude to waive the rules for national security and public safety missions, it’s possible that some — or many — open jobs will be filled while the freeze is in effect.