The Fisher House Foundation has stepped in to aid the Defense Department so families of fallen service members can receive the full set of benefits they have been promised, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said here today.
The Fisher House Foundation and DOD entered an agreement that includes the $100,000 death gratuity payment.
"I am offended, outraged, and embarrassed that the government shutdown had prevented the Department of Defense from fulfilling this most sacred responsibility in a timely manner," Hagel said in a written statement.
In the weeks before the shutdown, defense officials had warned Congress that the ability to pay death benefits to grieving families would run out when the appropriations lapsed.
"The Department of Defense informed Congress that the department would be legally unable to pay death benefits were there to be a lapse in DOD appropriations," White House press secretary Jay Carney said during his daily briefing today.
The issue was not explicitly addressed as part of the Pay Our Military Act. "The president was very disturbed to learn of this problem, and he directed the Department of Defense to work with the Office of Management and Budget and his lawyers to develop a possible solution and he expects this ... to be fixed today," Carney said.
Since the shutdown began Oct. 1, DOD budget officials looked at options to continue these benefits, Hagel said. "Even under the Pay Our Military Act, we found that we lacked the necessary authority to make payments to the families directly," the secretary said.
The Fisher House Foundation offered to make payments to these families from its own funds, and OMB officials determined DOD can enter into a contract with the Fisher House Foundation to provide these benefits.
"The Fisher House Foundation will provide the families of the fallen with the benefits they so richly deserve," Hagel said. "After the shutdown ends, DOD will reimburse the Fisher House for the costs it has incurred."
The Fisher House Foundation is best known for the houses built on the grounds of major military and VA medical centers nationwide and in Europe. Families of wounded or hospitalized service members stay at the houses as their loved ones undergo hospitalization for a combat injury, illness or disease.
A total of 26 service members have died since Oct. 1, including five killed in combat in Afghanistan. The $100,000 death gratuity comes from appropriated funds, and DOD could not obligate funds once the fiscal year 2013 appropriation ran out. The department also cannot pay the benefit that provides 12 months of basic allowance for housing, as that money also comes via appropriated funds.
"The department has no higher priority than taking care of our service members and their families," Hagel said. "Congress has responsibilities as well, and it has abdicated them.
"Along with the rest of the department's leaders," he continued, "I will continue to work every day to address the very real impact that the government shutdown is having on our people, and I once again call on Congress to fulfill its basic responsibilities and restore funding for the federal government."