VA Furloughs 9,000 Staff, Regional Offices Close

VA Secretary Eric Shinseki meets with veterans.

Nearly 10,000  Department of Veterans Affairs’ employees are staying home Tuesday after they were temporarily furloughed Monday because of the federal government shutdown that is now in its second week.

The VA announced the furloughs late Monday, the same day as hundreds of thousands of Department of Defense civilian employees began returning to work after receiving furlough notices last week. The DoD workers were called back after Congress passed legislation to pay them for the time they missed.

The VA furloughs that began Tuesday morning include 7,000 employees of the Veterans Benefits Administration and 2,754 with the VA’s Office of Information Technology, VA spokeswoman Victoria Dillon said.

In a statement on Monday announcing the furloughs, the VA underscored that the actions, including ending overtime for claims processors, is reversing its successes in bringing down the disability claims backlog.

“Overtime that has helped VA significantly reduce the disability claims backlog by more than 190,000 claims over the last six months,” the statement read. “Clear progress for veterans and their families is at risk without immediate action by Congress to make fiscal year 2014 funding available by passing a clean continuing resolution to reopen the government.”

The government is in the second week of the federal shutdown since Congress was unable to pass a budget or a continuing resolution before the start of the 2014 fiscal year. While many DoD civilians returned to work on Monday, many others remain home.

The VA said in its statement that all development of VA computer software will cease because of the IT furloughs, including work on the Veterans Benefits Management System the agency says is critical to reducing the claims backlog.

The furloughs were announced as the House Veterans Affairs Committee prepares to receive testimony on Wednesday from VA Secretary Eric Shinseki on the impact of the shutdown on the agency. Committee chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said in his Oct. 4 letter to Shinseki, he wants to discuss effects of lapsed mandatory and discretionary funding on VA benefit programs and disability claims processing, including decisions about overtime for processors.

Before the government went into shutdown mode at midnight, Oct. 1, mandatory overtime for claims processors was slated to continue until Nov. 16, according to the VA, followed by voluntary overtime through Dec. 31.

VA claims processors have been working a minimum of 20 hours overtime per month since May 15 as part of the department’s aggressive assault on the backlog. VA also began fully fielding its paperless claims processing system.

The initiatives and mandatory overtime reduced the backlog about 30 percent since from a peak of 611,000 in mid-March, to about 418,500 as of Sept. 30, according to the VA. That’s the lowest it has been in two years, VA officials say.

At the same time, the VBA increased overall claims accuracy to 90 percent while producing an additional 1,000 claims per day on average. VA says the benefits administration has been processing more than 100,000 claims on average each month and nearly 1.2 million claims in fiscal year 2013, achieving historic highs.

Since mandatory overtime halted Oct. 1 with the shutdown, the backlog nudged up from 418,500 to 418,700, according to the VA. But in the one week before the shutdown the number had dropped by 18,000, it said.

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