Major veterans organizations also worry this could be a sign of future tightening at the VA, coming after the department had previously warned it would need "hiring surges" to address a rapidly growing disability backlog. The groups have cautioned against any "privatization" efforts at the VA that could expand private care for veterans while reducing investment in the VA itself. "It seems to be a reversal of what they have been saying, and it's disappointing," said Garry Augustine, executive director of Disabled American Veterans' Washington headquarters. Carlos Fuentes, legislative director of Veterans of Foreign Wars, said his group was concerned the VA would overlook positions that didn't directly affect health care, such as staffing of its suicide prevention hotline. In a statement Wednesday, the VA said the hiring restrictions were needed to "streamline VA's corporate structure and administrative positions." While President Donald Trump's budget blueprint calls for a 6 percent increase in VA funding, the memo indicated that the government's second largest agency with nearly 370,000 employees was no different from other departments that needed to improve "efficiency, effectiveness and accountability" and left open the possibility of "near-term" and "long-term workforce reductions." Shulkin is also putting together a broader proposal by fall to expand the VA's Choice program of private-sector care. "This memo lifts the federal hiring freeze. However, this does not mean business as usual for hiring," stated VA chief of staff Vivieca Wright Simpson. She said VA leadership aimed to proceed in the coming months with "deliberative hiring strategies" as it seeks to build "a future VA of Choice." The memo comes as the Trump administration seeks to highlight accomplishment and accountability at the VA. During the 2016 campaign, Trump repeatedly criticized the VA as "the most corrupt" and pledged to expand private care. Trump planned to sign an executive order Thursday to create a VA Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection, according to a White House official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to discuss the matter on the record.
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