The government shutdown may be over, but veterans organizations are not relaxing their demand that Congress pass legislation to fully fund the Department of Veterans Affairs a full year in advance as a way to prevent future shutdowns from interfering with its mission.
In a statement released Thursday morning, the Veterans of Foreign Wars said it appreciates that Congress passed compromise legislation that reopened the government after two weeks, but the organization noted that the measure is short term with no guarantee there will not be another shutdown.
"The short-term funding package brings little assurance to America's veteran and military communities that what just ended won't happen again in three months," the group said, reiterating its call for Congress to pass existing legislation for advance appropriations across the entire VA.
The VFW, along with The American Legion, the Disabled American Veterans, and numerous other veteran and military-oriented organizations, were pushing for the advance funding even before the recent shutdown.
When the government shutdown beginning at midnight on Sept. 30, VA healthcare and medical facilities were protected because they already had their 2014 budget approved last year. But that was not the case for discretionary accounts, which include money for disability claims to vets, their dependents or survivors, as well as money for veterans attending school on the GI Bill.
Had the shutdown moved into late October checks to those individuals would not have gone out.
The VA and veterans were also affected in other areas. Furloughs of administrative personnel resulted in the closure of VA regional offices and a halt to intake of new disability claims. The claims backlog that VA had been steadily bringing down started to climb once more. And longstanding appeals by veterans to earlier claims' decisions ground to a halt.
"The only reason veterans and their families had to suffer is because Washington politicians didn't do their job," said Paul Rieckhoff, founder and chief executive officer of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. "Never again should elected officials put veterans' disability and GI Bill benefits and other support at risk."
Rieckhoff, whose group is credited with organizing the Oct. 15 gathering of 33 veterans groups and military associations at the World War II Memorial in Washington, DC, said the shutdown "underscored the importance of passing advanced funding for the entirety of VA. Never again should VA services be interrupted by political posturing."
DAV National Commander Joseph Johnston characterized the threats to VA payments and lost ground on the claims backlog as "fresh evidence of how damaging budget stalemates and government shutdowns are for veterans, their families and survivors."
"Now is the time to get Congress to pass, and the President to sign, new legislation to extend advance appropriations to all VA programs, services and benefits," he said in a statement sent out shortly after Congress passed Wednesday's legislation that fully reopened the government.
The veterans groups are all backing identical House and Senate bills that, Johnston said, "could easily be amended, passed, and enacted into law if there is the political will to do so."
The "Putting Veterans Funding First Act" would require Congress to pass a full year's appropriations bill for all VA discretionary programs one year in advance.
The measure has support from the GOP-led House but has not picked up traction in the Democratic-held Senate. Senate leadership is likely more sympathetic to the administration's claim that it needs more time to study the proposal and what kind of consequences it could have more broadly on the government.
VA officials appearing before both the House and Senate veterans' affairs committees offered no opinion on the measure.
"Since we know now that VA's mandatory disability compensation and other benefits were also at jeopardy during the shutdown," Johnston said. "Congress should amend the legislation to include all … funding in the advance appropriation, as well."