Lapses in care for veterans and the families of fallen service members ignited new fury over the government shutdown across Washington on Wednesday, and two Cabinet secretaries, both Army combat veterans, did not disguise their disgust with Congress.
Moving to defuse one of the more controversial cutbacks brought on by the shutdown, the Pentagon announced a plan Wednesday for a private charity, the Fisher House Foundation, to pay death benefits for fallen troops.
Before the announcement, the families of six service members killed in Afghanistan since the shutdown had not received the usual benefits, including money to travel to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, where those killed in war are brought home in flag-draped coffins. Nor is the government able to pay for burials and funerals, as is customary.
“I am offended, outraged, and embarrassed that the government shutdown had prevented the Department of Defense from fulfilling this most sacred responsibility in a timely manner,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in a statement Wednesday afternoon.
Hagel, who traveled to Dover to meet the remains of four service members killed last weekend by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan, added that Congress had “abdicated” its duties.
Earlier Wednesday, in testimony on Capitol Hill, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki painted a grim picture of the shutdown’s effect on veterans, warning that thousands are waiting longer to have claims resolved and that millions face the prospect of not receiving critical benefit checks in November.
During an appearance before the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, Shinseki acknowledged that the Veterans Affairs Department had not been well prepared for a government shutdown, saying he had thought it inconceivable.
“This was not one I believed would happen,” said Shinseki, a former Army chief of staff, who, like Hagel, served in Vietnam. “I just didn’t think the august members of this committee or the Congress would allow this to happen.”
Shinseki provided new details about how the shutdown has derailed the department’s efforts to shrink the large backlog of disability claims filed by veterans seeking compensation. The VA secretary said about 1,400 veterans a day are now not receiving decisions on their disability compensation claims because of the end of mandatory overtime, an initiative begun in May.
The backlog had decreased by 31 percent, from 611,000 to 418,500, between March and the end of September. But the number is up by about 2,000 since Oct. 1, when the department stopped paying overtime to claims processors.
“The shutdown directly threatens VA’s ability to eliminate the backlog,” Shinseki said during the packed committee hearing in the Cannon House Office Building. “We’ve lost ground we fought hard to take.”
Shinseki said that if the shutdown is not resolved before the end of the month, VA will run out of money and will not send checks Nov. 1 to 5.18 million beneficiaries.
“It’s not a game,” Shinseki said. “There are veterans and service members, families, children counting on this. . . . Five million of them will be impacted, severely.”
The charitable intervention on behalf of the families of fallen service members came after a day of consternation involving the White House, Capitol Hill and the Pentagon.
In addition to the six service members killed in Afghanistan, 20 military workers have died in accidents or in other ways since the shutdown began, and the families have not received the “death gratuity” of $100,000 that the Defense Department would normally have deposited in each of their bank accounts in 24 to 36 hours.
“When the president found out, he was upset, and he asked his lawyers and the OMB to find a solution,” White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters Wednesday, referring to the Office of Management and Budget.
Hagel said an agreement with the Fisher House Foundation will “allow the federal government to provide the family members of fallen service members with the full set of benefits they have been promised, including a $100,000 death gratuity payment.”
The foundation, which provides temporary housing for the families of loved ones undergoing medical treatment at military and VA hospitals, had said Tuesday that it would provide the benefit to any family members of killed troops who were being denied the money because of the shutdown. The difference now is that the Pentagon has formally agreed to pay back the foundation after the shutdown ends.
Just before Hagel’s announcement, the House voted 425 to 0 Wednesday to approve a measure intended to ensure that the Pentagon will be able to pay the death benefits.
Obama has resisted House attempts to pass spending bills to reopen specific agencies and restart programs, arguing that the government as a whole should be funded. Obama did approve of legislation to pay military members during the shutdown but has opposed other specific funding measures passed by the Republican-controlled House.
Senate Chaplain Barry Black, who has offered a series of stinging rebukes to Congress for its intransigence this week, addressed the issue of death benefits Wednesday morning at the opening of the session.
“Lord, when the federal shutdown delays payments of death benefits to the families of children dying on faraway battlefields, it’s time for our lawmakers to say enough is enough,” Black prayed. “Cover our shame with the robe of your righteousness.”
Craig Whitlock contributed to this report.