The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Shutdown could slow VA progress on disability claims

Placeholder while article actions load

The threatened shutdown of the federal government could hamper efforts by the Department of Veterans Affairs to reduce the big backlog of disability claims faced by veterans, advocates warn.

Medical services offered by the Department of Veterans Affairs would not be affected by a shutdown. The VA’s Veterans Health Administration is exempt from any shutdown consequences, as the organization has already received its Fiscal Year 2014 appropriations. All VA medical facilities would remain open for inpatient and outpatient care.

But benefits programs overseen by the VA would likely be affected by a shutdown. While the department referred comment to the Office of Management and Budget, congressional officials on committees overseeing the VA say they expect the impact would be similar to that outlined in contingency plans prepared by the department for the threatened shutdown in 2011.

In that scenario, the VA’s 57 regional offices handling present inventory of 736,000 disability claims around the country would likely have limited services, and the Veterans Benefits Administration would be unable to process education and vocational rehabilitation benefits.

“Veterans will be able to file claims electronically, but not in person because VA Regional Offices might be closed to all but essential personnel,” said Joe Davis, spokesman for Veterans of Foreign Wars. “That also means no one will be working to process the claims, which means the backlog will continue to grow.”

The Board of Veterans Appeals, which is trying to cope with a quarter-million appeals, would be unable to hold hearings, and the Office of Inspector General would be unable to do its work investigating allegations of wrongdoing.

In addition, the number of funerals at national military cemeteries operated by the VA’s National Cemetery Administration would decrease. Deceased veterans currently scheduled for burial would likely be interred as scheduled.

VA  payments for disability compensation, GI Bill education benefits, survivors benefits, and pensions for current beneficiaries are not subject to the annual discretionary funding battle and would not be affected.

In a memo sent to VA employees Monday evening, Jose D. Riojas, the VA’s chief of staff, said the department is updating its contingency plans to prepare for an “orderly shutdown” of some activities.

“The good news is that the Veterans Health Administration has advance appropriations for fiscal year 2014,” Riojas wrote in the memo, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post. “This means the majority of our employees will be able to continue to provide services.”

The great majority of the VA’s more than 300,000 employees work for the Veterans Health Administration, and are therefore exempt from furlough. But the rest of the VA workforce face uncertainty. Riojas warned that a shutdown would “mean that a number of employees would be temporarily furloughed,” but he did not offer details.

During preparations for shutdown in 2011, the department planned to furlough more than 8,300 employees. “The uncertainty of the current circumstances puts the rest of our workforce in a difficult situation, and should a lapse occur, it could impose hardships on many employees,” Riojas wrote.