The Department of Veterans Affairs headquarters in Washington, D.C.

The Department of Veterans Affairs headquarters in Washington, D.C. (Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON — The Republican chairmen on both of Congress’ veterans committees on Thursday joined calls from Democrats and asked President Donald Trump to exempt positions at the Department of Veterans Affairs from a temporary federal hiring freeze.

Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., and Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., asked Trump to clarify his order Monday for the 90-day hiring freeze and allow the VA to continue hiring employees who provide direct health care to patients as part of a “public safety” exemption.

“We are writing to respectfully request that you provide guidance indicating that exempting VA direct patient care providers is consistent” with the presidential memorandum, they wrote in a letter to Trump.

More than 50 Democrats – including the ranking members of the two veteran committees -- on Wednesday urged the president to exempt the VA from the hiring freeze and acting VA Secretary Robert Snyder said it was planning to continue hiring doctors and others who provide direct patient care, despite some confusion over the scope of Trump’s order.

Isakson and Roe said a halt in hiring caregivers could hamstring a three-year effort to overhaul the massive federal agency, which provides health care and benefits to millions of American veterans.

“We must ensure that, while we work toward our mutual goal of VA healthcare reform, VA is not further hampered by an inability to recruit high-quality clinicians to meet the immediate health care needs of our veterans,” Isakson and Roe wrote in the letter.

The VA has about 2,300 job openings posted on a federal website and has struggled to hire enough doctors and nurses since it was racked by a scandal over long patient wait times in 2014.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., the top Democrat on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said the agency actually has 45,000 vacancies. It was unclear how many of the openings could be affected by Trump’s hiring freeze.

Democrats and veteran groups warned leaving positions open could harm veterans seeking health care, benefits and jobs.

“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, which for many of our nation’s heroes provides a sole source of income to them and their families,” a group of 54 Democrats wrote Wednesday to Trump.

The White House confirmed Tuesday that the hiring freeze covers the VA but has not provided more details.

“Hiring more people isn’t the answer,” Press Secretary Sean Spicer said.

But the VA said it intends to continue filling some positions in its nationwide network of hospitals and clinics.

“The Department of Veterans Affairs intends to exempt anyone it deems necessary for public safety, including front-line caregivers,” said Snyder, who is leading the agency while Trump’s secretary pick, David Shulkin, awaits confirmation by the Senate. Twitter: @Travis_Tritten

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