Shutdown could affect benefits for millions of veterans - FOX 13 News

Shutdown could affect benefits for millions of veterans

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The Obama administration says it has worked out a solution to allow the families of fallen military members to receive death benefits during the government shutdown.

But about 3.8 million veterans will not receive disability compensation next month if the partial government shutdown continues into late October, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki told lawmakers Wednesday.

Veterans at VFW Riverview Post #8108 say they've already felt the impact of the government shutdown.

"Went to a doctor's appointment at the VA hospital and was told, 'you're canceled. You'll have to come back because the civilian employees weren't there to record things, to put them into the computers.' So I'll have to wait. I can do that, but I'm worried about the ones that are worse than me," said Army veteran Steve Brundage.

Some vets say cutting their benefits is a slap in the face after years of service to the nation.

"They made the promise, and now they're going to go back on it and that's not right," said VFW Riverview Post Commander Craig Stinson.

The White House said earlier Wednesday that President Barack Obama was "disturbed" to learn that families of fallen soldiers were not receiving death benefits. The Defense Department typically pays families about $100,000 within three days of a soldier's death, but officials say the shutdown was preventing those benefits from being paid.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel says the Fisher House Foundation has agreed to make the payments from its own funds. At the end of the shutdown, the Defense Department will reimburse the foundation for the costs it has incurred.

The Fisher House Foundation is a charity organization that works with veterans and military families.

Some 315,000 veterans and 202,000 surviving spouses and dependents will see pension payments stopped.

Shinseki spelled out some of the dire consequences of a longer-term shutdown in testimony before the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs. Short term, there's been a delay in processing claims by an average of about 1,400 per day since the shutdown began Oct. 1. That has stalled the department's efforts to reduce the backlog of disability claims pending for longer than 125 days.

In all, more than $6 billion in benefits to about 5 million veterans and their families would be halted with an extended shutdown.

In some areas, like health care, there have been few adverse effects. Health care services are funded a year in advance. In others, such as reducing the claims backlog, Shinseki noted that the backlog has increased by 2,000 since the shutdown began Oct. 1.

At the end of September, the disability claims backlog stood at 418,500, a drop of about 31 percent over the previous six months.

Shinseki drew comparisons to the last shutdown in 1996, a time of sustained peace. The current shutdown occurs as the war in Afghanistan is in its 13th year and as hundreds of thousands have returned from Iraq. They are enrolling in VA care at higher rates than previous generations of veterans.

"They, along with the veterans of every preceding generation, will be harmed if the shutdown continues," Shinseki said.

Rep. Jeff Miller, the Republican chairman of the committee, questioned whether the Obama administration had been forthcoming enough in letting veterans know the impact of the shutdown. For example, VA's initial guidance did not mention any impact on payments to veterans or the processing of their benefits, although it was updated before the shutdown began.

Miller said a statement by President Barack Obama made it unclear about whether veterans would be able to continue getting counseling for PTSD. They can, at any VA health care facility.

"We've had some difficulty in the last couple of weeks getting good information about VA's contingency plan and the effects a lapse in appropriation would have on veterans," Miller said.

Shinseki said the VA has confronted "unprecedented legal and programmatic questions" and would do its best to keep lawmakers informed.

The House has passed legislation that would provide veterans disability, pension and other benefits if the shutdown is prolonged. But the White House has urged lawmakers not to take a piecemeal approach to continuing government services.

Shinseki made that case as well, saying it's not the best solution for veterans. He noted that even if the VA were fully funded, some services to veterans would suffer.

He said the Labor Department has largely shut down its VETS program, which provides employment and counseling services to veterans. The Small Business Administration has closed 10 centers focused on helping veterans create and operate businesses. And the Housing and Urban Development Department is not issuing vouchers to newly homeless vets, though those already receiving the housing aid will still get it.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said Wednesday that veterans had done their job and that it was time for Congress to do its job.

Mitch McConnell's spokesman, Don Stewart, noted that the senator pushed for a vote on House-passed legislation that would protect disability benefits, but Majority Leader Harry Reid objected.

"Maybe Carney should give him a call," Stewart said.

The shutdown has disrupted the generally bipartisan workings of the veterans committees in both chambers.

"Do you think Senator Reid doesn't like our veterans or the VA in particular?" Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., asked Wednesday.

"Personally, I think he very highly values veterans," responded Shinseki, the only Cabinet member to testify before a congressional committee since the partial shutdown began. "As to why we are unable, Congress is unable to do its business, I will leave to the members to discuss."

Meanwhile, some Democrats said a GOP bill passed last week that would continue to fund disability payments didn't include money for such things as medical or prosthetic research and no money to maintain national cemeteries or various construction projects.

"I keep hearing the Senate, the Senate. I put the responsibility directly in the House. We could pass a clean (continuing resolution) and you wouldn't be sitting here," said Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Fla. "I don't blame the Senate. I thank God for the Senate."

Miller said there was bipartisan support in the House for legislation that would fund the entire Department of Veterans Affairs a full year in advance so it so it would not be subject to end-of-the-year brinkmanship. The VA had so far not endorsed the effort.

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