Vets Groups Warn Lawmakers That Shutdown Would Disrupt VA Services

Department of Veterans Affairs

Veterans groups are warning Congress that their hundreds of thousands of members don't want a repeat 2013 legislative failure that led to a government shutdown and disruption of veterans benefits and services.

Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, which in 2013 brought together members of 33 veterans groups to demand an end to the previous shutdown, plans to rally the organizations in advance.

"Widow's benefits, GI Bill checks and VA disability payments should not be held hostage by political games," IAVA President Paul Rieckhoff told Military.com on Friday. "If leaders in Washington shut down the government to prove a partisan political point, know that over 20 million veterans will be adversely affected. And that we won't forget when we vote in November."

Also on Friday, representatives of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Paralyzed Veterans of America and Disabled American Veterans warned lawmakers in a letter that "failure to fund the federal government beginning with the new fiscal year on October 1 will cause real harm to the brave men and women who have served and sacrificed for this nation."

The three groups, co-authors of an annual independent budget whose recommendations often find a place in the final legislation, said a shutdown halt work on more than 250,000 VA disability claims, force staff reductions at agency vocational rehabilitation programs close federal employment OneStops programs used by veterans.

The groups also told lawmakers that going along with a continuing resolution or any other stop-gap measure rather than approving a full budget also "are not acceptable solutions."

Continuing resolutions limit funding, prevent the VA from starting or expanding critical programs and disrupt or delay ongoing research and construction projects, the letter states. Continuing resolutions also do not take into consideration inflation or increasing demand for VA benefits and services.

"Your inaction will have a real impact on veterans, many of whom are struggling to transition back into civilian life," the groups said in the letter to House and Senate leaders.

The correspondence went out even as the Senate approved legislation authorizing the completion of the controversial and behind-schedule Denver VA medical center. The bill appropriates $625 million for the hospital, with the money transferred to the project through a 2016 continuing resolution. As yet, the stop-gap spending plan hasn't been passed.

VA officials on Friday published a contingency plan for a shutdown on its website, but cautioned that it is not final and will be updated as needed.

Because VA healthcare receives advanced appropriations, the department already has 2016 funding that will ensure no department clinics or hospitals would be closed, even if a shutdown does occur.

But during the 2013 shutdown, the VA issued temporary furloughs to about 7,000 Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) employees and nearly 3,000 Office of Information Technology workers. The furloughs slowed the progress the department was making in reducing the disability claims backlog, officials said at the time.

The department also warned at the time that the shutdown would mean no actions on claims, appeals of claims, or processing of Freedom of Information Act filings.

Elsewhere, VBA's Education Call Center would be suspended, along with the VA Inspector General hotline; Consumer Affairs email, web and phone contacts; congressional liaison veterans' queries; and VA job application functions.

Recruiting and hiring would also stop, the department said, and there would be no overseas military coordinator operations. VA outreach and public awareness programs, including VA secretary communications with veterans groups would be suspended.

Other VA phone numbers that no one will be answering if shutdown occurs are Children of Women Vietnam Veterans; Foreign Medical Program; Spina Bifida Health Care Program; CHAMPVA and the CHAMPVA In-House Treatment Initiative; income verification and means testing; the Gulf War/Agent Orange/Project SHAD/Mustard Agents and Lewsite/Ionizing Radiation hotline; and the Whistle-Blower Reprisal hotline.

Also anticipated is a slowdown in operating its website and updating its social media outlets, such as Facebook and Twitter.

American Legion National Legion National Commander Dale Barnett, in a statement Friday said he expects Congress and the White House to meet their constitutionally mandated responsibilities.

"A government shutdown, regardless of the reasons why, benefits no one," he said. "Our military readiness will suffer. The already enormous backlog of veterans' claims will continue to pile up. American taxpayers will be denied services that they paid for. "

Barnett called the elected officials "good people" and "patriots," and said they need to settle their political differences "without inflicting the massive pain to our country that would be caused as a result of yet another federal government shutdown."

--Bryant Jordan can be reached at bryant.jordan@military.com.

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