The initial effect of a government shutdown on veterans’ programs is modest, thanks to advance funding of medical programs, but problems will escalate if the budget standoff doesn’t end soon.
VA officials said they have slowed the processing of older disability claims because they can no longer pay for the mandatory overtime that had helped reduce the backlog by 25 percent since April. And if a shutdown extends into the week of Oct. 21, VA could run out of money and stop paying benefits, spokeswoman Victoria Dillon said.
The threat to benefits led Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont Independent who chairs the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, to introduce a bill to provide funding for veterans’ benefits during a shutdown.
Drafted to mirror a proposal signed into law on Monday to ensure the military is paid during a government shutdown, Sanders’ bill, S 1564, would provide funding to continue benefits and services. No vote has been scheduled on the bill.
Hospitals, clinics and mental health counseling are open, with surgeries, dental treatment and both inpatient and outpatient care available and with prescriptions being filled.
Applications for headstones, grave markers and medallions continue to be processed and funerals continue at national veterans’ cemeteries, although the VA said the number of burials could be reduced.
VA continues to accept, process and pay benefits claims for disability and survivors benefits, low-income pensions, rehabilitation and education programs, including living stipends for students using the Post-9/11 GI Bill. Payments will continue until money runs out, which Dillon said would be in “late October.”
VA operates several call centers and hot lines, and most remain in operation, including the Veterans Crisis Line. However, no one will be staffing the phones at the Education Call Center and Inspector General Hotline.
VA officials also announced they have stopped recruiting and hiring for positions outside of the Veterans Health Administration and have suspended the VetSuccess on Campus program that helps student veterans.
Rep. Mike Michaud of Maine, ranking Democrat on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said the shutdown has convinced him to try to protect administrative funding for VA from cuts.
“I’m especially concerned with the impact a drawn-out shutdown could have on the ability of VA to make benefit payments,” he said. “This shutdown illustrates the real need for Congress to provide advance appropriations for all VA programs, not just health care.”