WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s hiring freeze for federal workers thawed some Friday when the administration announced it would make an exception for a new VA hospital in Aurora that long has struggled with delays and cost overruns.
The decision followed an anxious meeting Thursday when staff to Colorado’s congressional delegation were told that Trump’s order could affect the opening of the nearly $1.7 billion facility.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs needs about 300 new employees to activate the sprawling medical campus, which is still under construction and won’t be fully operational until 2018 at the earliest.
Some of these new employees — such as doctors and nurses — likely would have been exempt anyway, because the hiring freeze made exceptions for positions “necessary to meet national security or public safety responsibilities.”
But there was concern the hospital’s support staff wouldn’t be included — a critical but potentially overlooked piece.
To allay these fears, the VA said it would exclude the new hospital from the hiring freeze, one of several sites the agency said would get a pass.
“The veterans of Colorado have waited too long for the completion of this project,” said Acting VA Secretary Robert Snyder in a statement. “We will do everything we can to make sure the Denver VAMC Replacement Facility is completed and becomes fully operational on schedule.”
The Aurora hospital has been a sore spot for Colorado’s congressional delegation ever since the VA announced in March 2015 that its construction cost had ballooned to about $1.7 billion — nearly triple its 2011 estimated price tag of $604 million.
The facility became a rallying cry for federal lawmakers upset with the VA, and Congress at one point threatened to cancel it. The project survived, but the state’s delegation remains on high alert for any new hiccups — especially since the goal once was to finish construction by February 2014.
“I hope this ensures there will be no further delays as it relates to staffing for the completion and activation of the new VA medical facility,” said U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Arvada, in a statement.
Added U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Aurora: “This action ensures that our veterans’ health care needs are being met not only in our district, but nationwide.”
The back-and-forth between Colorado and the White House is not unique. Congress has scrambled this week to keep pace with the flurry of executive orders Trump has issued since taking office, on issues ranging from trade to immigration to federal hiring practices.
The top Republicans on the U.S. House and Senate veterans committees on Thursday sent a letter to the White House asking that Trump ensure that “VA direct patient care providers” are exempt from the freeze too.
“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,” wrote U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia and U.S. Rep. Phil Roe of Tennessee.
It remains to be seen how many more exceptions the new White House grants in the aftermath of Trump announcing his decision to suspend, and then shrink, the size of the federal workforce — which included about 4.2 million employees in 2014, according to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.
That figure includes military personnel — as well as executive, judicial and legislative staff — and it has remained largely unchanged since 1998.
Colorado lawmakers said they still were in the process of trying to to understand the order’s impact on the federal facilities in the state, from staffing at national parks to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The order also has elicited opposition.
“The hiring freeze does nothing to ‘drain the swamp,’ and instead could negatively affect veterans, Social Security beneficiaries, farmers and ranchers, and Colorado’s outdoor and tourism industries,” said U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., in a statement. “Past hiring freezes by previous presidents have done little to cut costs or reduce federal workforce size. Instead, it may result in more backlogs and diminished services.”
Content originally published by the Denver Post on January 27, 2017.