The Veterans Affairs Department could furlough more than 15,000 employees, mostly from the Veterans Benefits Administration, in the event of a government shutdown next week.
If Congress fails to pass a budget for fiscal 2016, which begins Oct. 1, or a short-term spending resolution, dozens of VA programs and services will be halted or slowed under a contingency plan, according to Gary Hicks, a spokesman at the department who posted the details late Friday on the VA Advantage website.
“This document is intended to ensure that VA can perform an orderly suspension of its programs and operations in the unlikely event of a shutdown,” he wrote. The posting notes that the plan is incomplete and will be updated as needed.
Veterans groups are already weighing in on the looming crisis, rallying their memberships and warning lawmakers against allowing a shutdown.
When the VA dealt with the government shutdown of October 2013, it furloughed nearly 10,000 workers, about 7,000 from VBA and another 3,000 from its Office of Information Technology. The furloughs slowed the progress the department was making in bringing down the disability claims backlog, officials said at the time.
Because VA receives advance appropriations for its health operations each year, much of VHA will be able to operate whether or not a shutdown occurs. This year, for the first time, the department is authorized to receive advance appropriations for fiscal 2017.
Within VHA, more than 300,000 employees will continue to work because of the 2016 advance appropriation authorized at the time the 2015 budget was passed for medical, medical support, compliance and facilities functions, according to the contingency plan. Another 5,700 employees will continue to work because of a two-year advance funding specifically for medical and prosthetic research – though some 1,080 employees covered under 2015 funding would be subject to furlough once that money runs out, it states.
Another 2,100 employees who provide health care services to VA and Defense Department beneficiaries at a jointly funded and staffed facility in North Chicago, Illinois, because they have been designated as critical for the protection of life and property, the plan states.
The VBA could see up to 7,550 employees furloughed, representing about a third of its 22,111 work force, it states.
About 14,241 VBA employees working would be exempt from furlough because their work relates to processing and payment of compensation, pension, education, and vocational rehabilitation benefits.
Other areas that would take a significant hit with a government shutdown include the National Cemetery Administration, which could see up to 1,100 of its 1,850 employees furloughed. The NCA would bring in contractors to carry out interments at those national cemeteries already under contract and would also restrict the number of interments at mid- range cemeteries to eight per day, under the contingency plan.
It would also suspend processing applications for Presidential Memorial Certificates.
The Board of Veterans Appeals would see its entire staff of 678 furloughed after its 2015 funding ran out; the Office of Information Technology, which could see up to more than 3,500 of its approximately 7,900 employees furloughed; and the Office of the Inspector General.
The OIG, under fire from Congress for failing to protect whistleblowers and not being aggressive enough in pursuit of corruption, would see nearly 500 of its 690-staff department furloughed.
“In its shutdown contingency deliberations, VA has consistently worked to establish which of its functions are legally excepted for carrying out services the department is obligated to provide to the nation’s veterans and their families,” Hicks wrote.
--Bryant Jordan can be reached at email@example.com.