Impasse Puts Some Lives on Hold; Workers Being Recalled to Prevent Huge Backlog in Service Requests

By Stephen Barr
Thursday, March 3, 2011; 11:32 AM

From The Washington Post archives

Published: November 17, 1995, Friday, Final Edition

For five years, Carl Schlager of Walkertown, N.C., has waited to plead his case before the Board of Veterans Appeals in Washington. But two days ago his appointment was canceled because of the government shutdown.

Schlager, 39, claims he has constant pain from his 10 years of loading bombs for the Air Force at bases in Germany, New York, South Carolina and Louisiana. He has had one hip replaced and said doctors have told him he will need surgery to replace the other one. He had already committed to his trip here, working a weekend shift in order to get the day off, when veterans officials told him there would be no hearing Wednesday. Now, he said, he will have to take more time off from work for the rescheduled hearing. "It's not a hop, skip and a jump. It's a 300-mile haul," Schlager said yesterday. "I'm not surprised at anything our government does anymore."

Schlager was one of thousands of Americans whose lives were put on hold by the government this week. President Clinton, arguing that government services would be strained if shut down too long, ordered the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Social Security Administration and the Health and Human Services Department yesterday to bring back workers to answer telephones and process claims.

"If the government shutdown continues to prevent action to accept applications for Medicare, Social Security and veterans' benefits made by seniors and veterans, this backlog would be so great that service to these citizens would not return to normal for months to come," Clinton said.

Social Security, which has 4,780 employees on duty now, will have 54,495 workers staffing 1,300 field offices around the country and answering telephones at 37 centers on Monday, a spokesman said. About 11,700 employees will remain on furlough.

On an average day, Social Security receives 28,000 applications for retirement, survivors or disability benefits. The shutdown virtually guarantees that the processing of new claims will be slower than usual next week.

The VA will send 1,700 claims personnel back into its regional offices and hospitals to accept new claims from veterans. But a spokeswoman noted that the workers will not be able to process the 400,000 claims awaiting final action within the vast VA bureaucracy.

The returning personnel will answer telephone calls and date all incoming mail, the spokeswoman said. The VA had 381 personnel in its benefit offices this week to accept emergency claims, but even with the additional people going back to work Monday, 10,719 benefits workers will remain furloughed.

Separately, the VA issued a statement warning that some of its medical vendors "have begun to indicate they will stop providing veterans' medical facilities with goods and services because of concern that VA cannot pay its bills."

"If this shutdown extends into next week we may begin to develop patient care problems," said Kenneth W. Kizer, the VA undersecretary for health.

VA Secretary Jesse Brown also said benefit checks will not be mailed to 3.3 million veterans and their survivors in early December if Congress does not act by Tuesday.

No new applications for Medicare -- about 10,000 a day on average -- have been processed since the shutdown, but an HHS spokesman said the Health Care Financing Administration would recall 100 employees to restart the system.

Attorney General Janet Reno also suggested that if the shutdown continues, "we're going to have to bring in more and more staff to ensure the proper handling of . . . investigations."

Administration officials said the president's decision to recall the federal workers came after an internal review looking at public health and safety concerns. "Seeing how we can deal with what is now the longest and most unprecedented shutdown in government in our history is a day-to-day exercise," White House press secretary Michael McCurry said. Clinton has instructed his staff to work with federal agencies "to evaluate on a day-to-day basis how the American people are being affected by the shutdown."

Decisions on which workers to send home during a shutdown were drawn up by each agency last summer. In some cases, federal workers contend, the standards for separating so-called essential workers from the non-essential have not been applied consistently across departments and agencies.

Yesterday, lawyers for the American Federation of Government Employees, representing 700,000 federal workers, raised questions about the legal justification behind the furloughs and asked U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan to order the government to stop forcing employees to work without pay during the fiscal impasse.

Virginia Seitz, an attorney for the union, argued that federal agencies are violating the law by requiring certain "emergency" employees to come to work or face disciplinary action.

Seitz said the union is not asking the judge to mediate a budget dispute but rather force Congress and Clinton to do their jobs. "We are asking them to solve their problems . . . instead of doing it on the backs of the federal workers," she said.

But Thomas Peebles of the Justice Department warned that if Sullivan granted the union's request, the government would be thrown into chaos. "It would be potentially very very harmful to the public interest," he said.

The union is concerned that once the budget crisis is resolved employees will not be compensated for their work. Peebles pointed out that Congress has always repaid employees for working during prior budget problems. He also said that if Congress refuses to do that this time, the employees can always sue to get their money.

In a letter to House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) Wednesday, Rep. Ernest J. Istook Jr. (R-Okla.) said it would be a "bad mistake" to pay workers who were furloughed.

"If workers have personal leave time for which they can be paid during this period, that is fine. If they can be scheduled to work extra hours when federal business resumes, and thereby get back some of their lost pay, that also is fine. But it is not a proper principle to pay people for work not done," Istook wrote.

Staff writers William J. Branigin, Toni Locy and Bill McAllister contributed to this report.

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