Shutdown Could Halt VA Checks by November

Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki
Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki

Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki told lawmakers on Wednesday that millions of veterans, their dependents, or survivors relying on VA compensation and support will not receive their checks next month if the ongoing government shutdown stretches into late October.

"Effective 1 November, if we don't resolve this, [disabled] veterans will not receive pension compensation," Shinseki told the House Veterans Affairs Committee. "For veterans at school, their education checks, vocational rehab … There are 3.8 million veterans, and when you add their survivors, spouses and children, it's over 5 million individuals involved."

"I'm hoping the leadership of this committee will help us resolve it," he said.

Shinseki's warning about the consequences of continuing the shutdown was not new. VA officials said on Oct. 1 -- when the government went into shutdown mode -- that compensation and other checks for November would be affected if the impasse lasted past mid-October.

Shinseki also reiterated that the disability claims backlog, which the VA has been trying to bring down, is headed up once more because funds to cover overtime for processors has run out. In recent months, the VA has reduced the backlog by more than 190,000 claims.

The shutdown is reversing the progress with about 1,400 fewer decisions on disability claims being made each day, he said. That number will grow to about 5,600 a day by Oct. 31.

The VA furloughed nearly 10,000 employees on Tuesday, 7,000 of them from the Veterans Benefits Administration and 2,754 with its Office of Information Technology. It also stopped software development linked to its paperless claims processing system.

During his testimony on Wednesday, Shinseki was pressed by Miller about when the VA began taking steps to minimize any damage from the shutdown, perhaps by eliminating some costs. Miller has recently criticized the VA for paying more than $900,000 for paid TV advertizing and more than $500,000 to buy artwork.

"This is not a political question, it's a question of priorities," Miller said, suggesting such monies could have been used for burials and cemetery care -- both of which will be affected by the shutdown.

"The suggestion that this was year-end spending is not the case," Shinseki said. "There are three facilities in the process of being constructed or [having] major refurbishment. … Part of the project is to replace wall hangings, photographs, and prints that say it's a healing environment and for veterans."

Some 1,400 pieces of art were bought for the facilities in Miami and Jacksonville, Florida, and Los Angeles, he said, and included photos of veterans, local scenes that the veterans would recognize.

"If there was a way to have anticipated this shutdown and redirected some of the money, I probably would have," he said. "It was not until the last week in September that it was clear what was going to happen."

Miller complained to Shinseki that his committee has had a difficult time learning what kind of contingency plan VA had for a shutdown.

Shinseki said there was no ready plan on hand as there had not been a shutdown since 1995. At that time, VA and the Defense Department were exempted from the shutdown, officials said.

"If you knew the shutdown was going to happen, it wasn't shared with me," Shinseki told Miller. "Yes, you always look at the possibilities, I just didn't think you would allow this to happen."

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