The VA has acted to bar medical personnel from using official time, issuing a “notice of repudiation” to four unions that represent such employees that it will no longer honor contract provisions allowing such employees to perform certain union-related work during working hours.

The move will cover more than 100,000 “Title 38” employees in occupations including physicians, dentists, optometrists, registered nurses, physicians assistants and others, although currently only about 430 such employees perform any official time. Title 38 is a body of federal personnel law for VA medical employees that differs in some ways from the general federal personnel law, called Title 5.

In a statement, VA said the change “will improve VA’s ability to deliver health care to veteran patients” at a time the department has an estimated 35,000 vacancies in medical occupations. In its notice, the department said that “FLRA precedent allows federal agencies to lawfully repudiate a collective bargaining agreement provision that conflicts with federal law,” citing a provision of Title 38 that makes matters that concern direct patient care not subject to negotiation.

The move however is increasing tensions in what is already a contentious relationship between the VA and its unions—and the administration and unions generally—over matters including official time, which unions view as a tradeoff for the requirement that they represent all employees in a bargaining unit regardless of whether they pay dues. The AFGE union, for example, said that “clinicians use official time to raise concerns about patient safety, access to care, and staffing shortages. Silencing their voices endangers our veterans.”

AFGE and the other unions affected also say the VA decision could set precedent for other agencies to revoke official time on the premise that the agency needs those employees to be performing their regular duties at all times.

Official time can be used for purposes such as bargaining and representing employees in grievances but not for internal union matters such as recruiting or conducting elections.

The latest data show that VA employees spent more than 1 million hours on official time at a salary and benefits cost of more than $49 million in 2016. The number of hours per bargaining unit employee, 3.53, was slightly above the government-wide average of 2.97. The report did not disclose how many VA employees spend all of their working hours on official time; some estimates have put the number at above 300 out of a department-wide workforce of some 360,000.