Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki painted a dire picture today of the impact of the government shutdown on benefits and services to veterans -- from a slowdown in claims reviews to the threat of cancelled compensation checks to more than 5 million beneficiaries if funding isn't restored soon.
"All the effects ... are negative," Shinseki reported during testimony before the House Veterans Affairs Committee. "It is an impediment to VA's ability to deliver services and benefits that veterans have earned through their service."
VA's health care system continues to function under advance appropriations provided through fiscal 2014. This means all VA medical centers, clinics and other health services remain open for business as usual.
But cancellation of overtime payments when appropriations lapsed at midnight Sept. 30 has had an immediate impact on benefit claims reviews, Shinseki told the panel. This not only has stalled progress made in recent months toward eliminating the claims backlog, but actually increased it by about 2,000 claims, he reported.
"The shutdown directly threatens VA's ability to eliminate the backlog," he lamented. "We have lost ground we fought hard to take. Roughly 1,400 veterans a day are not receiving decisions on their disability claims due to the end of overtime."
If the impasse continues through late October, Shinseki said, claims processing for compensation, pension, education, vocational rehabilitation and employment benefits will be suspended. "Once mandatory funds are depleted at the end of this month, nearly 5,600 veterans a day will not receive a decision on their disability claims," he said.
Meanwhile, Shinseki warned of more severe consequences in terms programmed compensation benefits, pension payments and educational benefits if funding isn't approved soon.
"VA will not be able to assure delivery of [Nov. 1] checks to more than 5.18 million beneficiaries," who collectively are scheduled to receive $6.25 billion in benefits, Shinseki said. This includes payments to more than 3.8 million veterans -- some suffering the most severe disabilities -- as well as more than 364,000 survivors and more than 1,200 children with birth defects and other conditions related to a parent's military service.
Pension payments, too, will stop for almost 315,000 veterans and more than 202,000 surviving spouses and dependents if the shutdown continues into late October, he said.
A prolonged shutdown also will stop education benefits and living stipends under GI Bill programs for more than a half-million veterans and service members, he reported.
Shinseki said employee furloughs at VA already are affecting operations that directly support services and benefits for veterans.
Exhausting carryover funds that had sustained the Veterans Benefits Administration through yesterday, VA furloughed more than 7,800 VBA employees, he said. That's on top of almost 2,800 employees from VA's Office of Information and Technology who were furloughed Oct. 1, Shinseki reported. In both cases, more than half of the furloughed VA employees are veterans themselves, he noted.
Shinseki told Congress that a piecemeal approach to restoring funding isn't the answer, because VA partners with so many other federal agencies to deliver veterans services.
He noted, for example, his department's work with the Labor Department to promote veterans jobs programs and with the Department of Housing and Urban Development to end veteran homelessness.
VA has weathered government shutdowns in the past. But during the last one, in 1996, the United States was enjoying a sustained period of relative peace, Shinseki said.
"Today we are in the 13th year of war in Afghanistan, providing care and benefits to veterans of that war and the war in Iraq as well," he told the committee. "Members of this latest generation of veterans are enrolling in VA at a higher rate than ever before. They, along with the veterans of every preceding generation, will be harmed if the shutdown continues."
Shinseki urged Congress to resolve the fiscal impasse now, "so that VA and our federal partners on whom we have to rely to do our work can get back to work full-time, fulfilling President Lincoln's call to care for those who have borne the battle."