Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki is warning that the government shutdown has harmed efforts to reduce the disability claims backlog, and threatens compensation payments for millions of veterans.
“The momentum achieved over the past six months has now stalled with the government shutdown,” Shinseki said in prepared testimony he is scheduled to deliver Wednesday before the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee. A copy of his testimony was obtained by The Washington Post.
Shinseki will testify that if the shutdown continues into late October, compensation payments to more than 3.8 million veterans will not be made in November. “These include thousands of veterans who have the most severe disabilities,” he said in his advance testimony.
Pension payments will also stop for almost 315,000 low-income veterans, Shinseki said.
With Department of Veterans Affairs regional offices around the country closing to the public, more than 7,000 VA employees placed on furlough and the size of the disability claims backlog creeping upward, the House committee is seeking more details about the impact of the government shutdown on veterans.
All public access to the VA’s 56 regional offices was suspended Tuesday because of a lack of funds, the VA said.
Since the VA ceased paying overtime for claims processors Oct. 1, the backlog of disability and pensions claims increased by about 200 and now stands at approximately 418,700. In contrast, the backlog decreased approximately 18,000 from Sept. 23 to Sept. 30.
The overtime initiative, which began in May and was to expire at the end of September, had been extended until November 16, according to the VA.
“VA’s ability to make significant progress reducing the disability claims backlog is hampered without the increased productivity gained from overtime for claims processors – overtime that has helped VA significantly reduce the disability claims backlog by more than 190,000 claims over the last six months,” the department said in a statement.
The VA also announced that it is ceasing all development of the software for its new paperless Veterans Benefits Management System, “the system critically important to reducing the backlog of disability claims,” the department said.
The furloughs and office closings follow warnings that the VA will run out of funds to pay disability claims and pensions by the end of October. “We have veterans who are disabled who are counting on their benefits,” President Obama said during a news conference Tuesday.
Rep. Michael Michaud of Maine, the ranking Democrat on the House committee, said the VA’s announcement “drives home the point that this shutdown has serious consequences.”
“VA employees should be worrying about VA’s mission of service to veterans, not managing an agency on spare change remaining from last year, and it’s a shame that Washington’s dysfunction has led to the furloughs of thousands of dedicated VA employees and may jeopardize benefits for some veterans,” said Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), chairman of the committee.
Miller’s office said the VA and President Obama “have made a series of conflicting statements” regarding the impact of the shutdown on veterans, and that the committee wants more clarity.
Miller sent a letter to Shinseki on Tuesday questioning why the VA has “continued to run a costly advertising campaign” during the shutdown, including television commercials running during National Football League games and Major League Baseball playoffs.
The VA is also suspending services such as educational and vocational counseling and outreach programs, including those conducted at military facilities. The American Legion said in a statement Tuesday that it is outraged at the impact of the government shutdown on veterans.
“Because Congress and the White House refuse to speak to each other, our country’s veterans are suffering more with each passing day of this extremely dangerous impasse,” said Daniel M. Dellinger, national commander of The American Legion.
“Now we’ve reached the point where VA can’t even process benefits claims for our men and women who served in uniform,” Dellinger added. “Our nation’s leaders need a reality check. Do they really think they are serving the best interests of our veterans — or the best interests of all Americans — by forcing government agencies to shut down?”