VA Chief: Shutdown puts millions of payments at risk

October 10, 2013

By Tom Philpott

If you can read this, thank a teacher.

If you can read this with hope that those who shut down much of the federal government will soon sound retreat, perhaps thank a veteran.

VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, a retired four-star general and former Army chief of staff, called on House Republicans Wednesday to pass a "clean CR" or continuing budget resolution to avoid harming millions of veterans.

Shinseki told the House Veterans Affairs Committee that if funds to end staff furloughs arent restored soon, VA would not be able to make November payments of pensions, disability compensation or GI Bill allowances to 5.18 million veterans and survivors.

House Republicans countered that they had passed a joint resolution to fund VA benefits at 2013 levels, part of a flurry of bills to reopen portions of government viewed as critical or popular with constituents. Senate Democrats have ignored almost all of them.

But the shutdown, the practice of passing CRs rather than full appropriations, and now the piecemeal approach to funding government drew the wrath of veteran service organizations. AMVETS, Disabled American Veterans, Paralyzed Veterans of America and Veterans of Foreign Wars told congressional leaders in a joint letter that their failure to pass a full VA budget "is already causing real harm" to veterans.

Work has stopped on more than 250,000 disability claims. VA disability pay, pension and education benefits are at risk. VA Vocational Rehabilitation offices have cut staff and Labor Department programs to help vets find jobs are suspended.

"Our organizations, and the millions of veterans we represent, will no longer tolerate Congress leveraging veterans health and wellbeing to achieve unrelated political ends," the letter warned.

VA health care is funded under an advanced appropriations process, which is protecting all VA medical facilities as well as 90 percent of the VA budget and staff. Unprotected from the shutdown, however, is the Veterans Benefits Administration, which has furloughed 7800 employees. Efforts to reduce the claims backlog are halted, Shinseki said. Indeed the claims backlog grew last week by 2000 after falling last month by 193,000.

"We have lost ground we had fought hard to take," the former infantry officer told the committee. The shutdown also has put at risk the goal of ending the backlog by 2015, Shinseki said. And if the VBA furloughs last more than a few weeks, he said, it wont be able to issue November benefit checks, worth $6.25 billion, to more than five million beneficiaries including 400,000 veterans rated 100 percent disabled.

Defense officials learned last Friday they could use the new Pay Our Military Act, which Congress passed unanimously, to end furloughs for most defense employees and to reopen support activities including commissaries. But Shinseki said the "mini-CR" House Republicans passed to fund VA benefits would fail to restore full VA services, if enacted, because VA has to work with so many other federal agencies hit by the government shutdown.

VA education, employment, insurance and housing programs rely on "significant cooperation" from the departments of Education, Labor, Housing and Urban Development, Treasury, the Social Security Administration, the IRS and the Small Business Administration, Shinseki said.

Half way through the hearing, a Democrat praised the bipartisanship shown by colleagues, crediting the tone set by Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), the committee chairman. But then Rep. Tim Huelskamp (Kan.), a Tea Party Republican, asked Shinseki if Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) doesnt like veterans? How else to explain Reid not sending a VA funding bill to the Senate floor for a vote, he said.

This angered Rep. Timothy J. Walz (D-Minn.) who invited Huelskamp to apologize. Walz referred to a "cancerous" feeling created by some colleagues, which led to antics like the shutdown, a huge waste of time and resources that should have been used to help veterans.

Rep. Corrine Brown (D-Fla.) hollered that she was sick of House Republicans blaming the Senate for the mess the House had made by refusing to pass a continuing resolution that didnt also attack Obamacare.

"The House is inept!" Brown said. "Twenty two years and I have never seen anything like the people who serve in this House, who want to act like they care about the veteransThey are out at the cemeteries and [war] memorials saying, We dont know why its shut down. Well you voted to shut it down a few hours earlier!"

Chairman Millers mood too darkened. He said Shinseki made the impact of the shutdown seem as bad as possible for veterans. At one point he asked Shinseki to clear up an impression left that all veterans who qualify for disability compensation have low incomes. When he did so, Miller said:

"So people with shaving bumps or sleep apnea or hemorrhoids or all those disabilities that are out there today, they get that [compensation] regardless of the income, right?"

Miller also pressed Shinseki to acknowledge that the total number of VA employees furloughed is relatively small. Brown interrupted to say the chairman should be focusing instead on the millions of benefit checks at risk.

"We knew about the possibility of this sometime ago," Miller answered, turning to Shinseki to confirm.

"Do you believe the same thing, Mr. Secretary," Miller asked.

Shinseki said he never expected Congress to put VA benefits at risk like this, even though as a career soldier he likes to "look at all the options."

Shinseki said he first came to understand the threat of a shutdown was real the last week of September, and rushed to pull emergency operating plans.

"So Mr. Chairman, if you knew the shutdown was going to happen, it wasnt shared with me," Shinseki said.

Miller went on to criticize -- and Shinseki to defend -- recent VA purchases of wall hangings to decorate new health facilities. By then, any warm feelings of committee bipartisanship were long gone.

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