A coalition of Democratic lawmakers -- including every Senate Democrat -- is demanding that President Trump exempt the Department of Veterans Affairs from his recent hiring freeze, saying it will significantly harm health care and benefits delivery for veterans.

In a letter sent to the White House Thursday evening, the group of 55 Congress members urged the new president to "take stock of this hiring freeze's effect on our nation's veterans and exempt VA as well as any veterans seeking federal employment."

On Monday, in one of his first presidential acts, Trump signed a government-wide hiring freeze designed to curb the growth of federal bureaucracy. The order does apply to military personnel and includes exceptions for positions "necessary to meet national security or public safety responsibilities."

Department of Defense officials confirmed Wednesday that the order does apply to civilian military staff, though many jobs may be eligible for the exemption.

In a statement Tuesday, acting VA Secretary Robert Snyder said his department would "exempt anyone it deems necessary for public safety, including frontline caregivers," in keeping with the order.

But the Democrats -- led by Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee ranking member Jon Tester, D-Mont., and House Veterans’ Affairs Committee ranking member Tim Walz, D-Minn. -- said that may not be enough. They note those exceptions won’t include support staff, appointment schedulers, payment processers and other key staffers whom veterans rely upon. In an interview with NPR last fall, VA Secretary nominee Dr. David Shulkin said that the massive veterans bureaucracy had about 45,000 job openings nationwide.

"That's too many," he said. "I need to fill every one of those openings in order to make sure that we're doing the very best for our veterans."

Lawmakers said the hiring freeze will create chronic workforce shortages and significant dangers at health facilities at a time when the department is still recovering from wait-time scandals and working to repair public trust in its programs.

"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," the letter states.

"Further, this will have an impact on community providers, who will be forced to continue waiting for delayed payments without VA having the ability to hire employees to process payments on their claims."

The Democrats also criticized the freeze’s potential effects on veterans seeking work in federal posts. More than 623,000 veterans are currently working in civilian federal posts, almost a third of the 2 million-person federal work force.

"An across-the-board freeze will hurt these veterans, many of whom are transitioning from military to civilian service, and many of whom are disabled," the letter states. "The negative impacts of this freeze will be felt across the country and disproportionately affect those men and women who have honorably served in our military."

On Thursday, the Republican heads of the congressional veterans committees -- Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., and Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga. -- wrote a similar letter to Trump asking he exempt "VA direct patient care providers" to ensure veterans health services aren't disrupted.

"As you have rightfully recognized many times before, the VA healthcare system is currently in a state of crisis," they wrote. "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."

Earlier in the week, White House spokesman Sean Spicer responded to a question about the potential impact of the freeze on VA by arguing it shows a broader "respect" for taxpayers.

"Some people are working two, three jobs just to get by," he said. "And to see money get wasted in Washington on a job that is duplicative is insulting to the hard work that they do to pay their taxes."

Republicans on Capitol Hill have also been critical in recent years of disciplinary and accountability measures within VA, arguing that too many inefficient and incompetent workers are allowed to stay on the payroll while services suffer.

Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at lshane@militarytimes.com.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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