The U.S. Postal Service announced it will halt planned service reductions and other cost-cutting initiatives in response to public outcry — including strong opposition from veterans advocates — over the timing and impact of the moves.
“There are some long-standing operational initiatives … that have been raised as areas of concern as the nation prepares to hold an election in the midst of a devastating pandemic,” Postmaster General Louis DeJoy said in a statement released Tuesday.
“To avoid even the appearance of any impact on election mail, I am suspending these initiatives until after the election is concluded. Retail hours at post offices will not change. Mail processing equipment and blue collection boxes will remain where they are. No mail processing facilities will be closed. And we reassert that overtime has, and will continue to be, approved as needed.”
The reversal comes just a few days before DeJoy is scheduled to testify before Congress on the operational changes, some of which drew concerns about election tampering from Democratic leaders.
Active cases of the virus among department patients have decreased in recent weeks.
Much of the country is expected to use mail-in voting in this fall’s presidential election because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, and recent service disruptions and operational cutbacks have drawn accusations that administration officials were hurting the system to gain electoral advantages.
But in recent days, the change has also drawn strong criticism from veterans advocates who reported widespread problems with veterans receiving needed medications through the mail.
Mail-order prescriptions have become the only option for large groups of veterans around the country since the start of the pandemic because VA medical centers have limited visitors in an effort to slow the spread of the illness.
On Monday, officials from Disabled American Veterans said that Veterans Affairs leaders had informed advocates that postal service changes had delayed mail medication deliveries by almost 25 percent in the last year, with even worse delays in some rural and remote areas.
“It is simply unacceptable that America’s veterans, particularly those who were injured or made ill in defense of this country, should face the prospect of not receiving necessary medications in a timely manner considering such delays can be the difference between health and sickness, or even worse,” DAV National Commander Stephen Whitehead said in a statement.
“Our nation’s veterans, particularly those disabled by their service, deserve nothing less than high-quality and timely health care and benefits no matter their geographic location, and for the foreseeable future that requires a fully functioning United States Postal Service.”
President Donald Trump and congressional Democrats have sparred over funding for postal operations in recent months. On Tuesday, during an appearance on CNN, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said if election concerns weren’t dire enough to force the president to act, the veterans complaints should be.
“Our veterans get 80, 90 percent of their (medications) through the mail,” he said. “And to have these things delayed, all these special things delayed, and at the same time to sort of try to make the Post Office dysfunction so the elections will be dysfunctional, that’s despicable.”
Trump has denied any political motivations in the mail service controversy.
DeJoy is scheduled to testify before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on Friday and before the House Oversight Committee on Aug. 24.
Meanwhile, officials from both the House and Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committees have called for the postal service officials to provide answers to veterans concerns.
The Guard deployments are expected to last until at least the end of 2020.
“We are concerned by reports from veterans and VA staff indicating that wait times have doubled or even tripled in some cases, without explanation,” House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takano wrote in a letter to DeJoy and VA Secretary Robert Wilkie last week. “Reports indicate that medications have been allegedly sitting at post office locations for nearly two weeks without movement.
“These delays are a real threat to our veterans, and your agencies must do everything possible to rectify the situation.”
In his statement Tuesday, DeJoy did not mention the veteran prescription problems, but pledged to deliver the nation’s mail “on time and within our well-established service standards” in coming months.