House VA Committee Holds Hearing on Affect of Government Shutdown on Veterans

stacks of filesOn October 9, 2013, the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs (HCVA) held a hearing to examine the affect of the partial federal government shutdown on veterans’ benefits.  During the hearing, only Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki was called to testify, though several veterans service organizations (VSO), including Paralyzed Veterans of America, submitted official statements for the record (read Paralyzed Veterans statement).  As part of his testimony, Secretary Shinseki provided a dire warning if the shutdown continues.

While the health care system of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) continues to function during the partial government shutdown, due to being funded through advance appropriations, Secretary Shinseki indicated that VA has also been able to continue processing veterans’ claims.  This was accomplished using carryover funds remaining from fiscal year 2013 during the first few days of the shutdown.  However, those funds were exhausted very quickly leading to many VBA staff members being furloughed. 

According to the VA, the lack of funding has led to delays for an average of 1,400 veterans a day.  The Secretary expressed concern that a greater challenge will occur if the shutdown continues into late October, at which time “claims processing for veterans’ compensation, pensions, education, vocational rehabilitation and employment benefits will be suspended due to lack of funding.”  When asked if passage of a VA appropriations bill currently stalled in the Senate would solve the problem, the Secretary said that it would not completely.  This was due to the fact that VA receives data to assist in processing claims from several other federal agencies including the Social Security Administration and the Internal Revenue Service.  Without this information, VA cannot accurately process claims.
With only a few exceptions, members of the Committee were mostly bipartisan in their concerns for veterans and the need to get the government fully open and operating again.  Both Chairman Jeff Miller (R-FL) and Ranking Member Michael Michaud (D-ME) commented on the desire for the Senate to pass the VA appropriations bill that the House passed over four months ago, well before the shutdown.  Rep. Michaud also added that a clean CR (Continuing Resolution) was an alternative that would again get benefits flowing to veterans and their families.

In our statement for the record, Paralyzed Veterans explained that the number one concern expressed by our members is whether or not they will receive their compensation and pension benefits at the end of October.  Similarly, questions have been raised about payment of Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC) as well.

Paralyzed Veterans also expressed serious concerns about the impact that the government shutdown will have on the process for providing Specially Adapted Housing (SAH) benefits.  SAH claims require expeditious follow-up to the multiple step processes that are required to provide a safe environment to catastrophically disabled veterans.  Many veterans with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) experience rapid exacerbations of their terminal illness which require appropriate modifications to their home to protect them from the hazards of everyday living.  The role of VA employees who handle SAH in these cases is to evaluate the needs of the veteran and coordinate the various building codes and other related issues to facilitate the implementation of the needed home modifications as quickly as possible.  The decrease in the VBA workforce as a result of the shutdown will certainly cause unnecessary delays to SAH claims that may result in severe consequences for veterans who need the greatest assistance.

Meanwhile, the function of the Veterans Benefits Management System (VBMS) and its widespread implementation is jeopardized by the shutdown.  VBMS roll outs are already falling behind schedule and the furlough will further erode the progress of this critical VBA initiative.  The incremental releases which build on the ability of VSO’s to better support the claims adjudication process will be delayed and will likely have a reverse catalytic effect to the progress that has been made.  Additionally, the system, which requires significant and ongoing maintenance through the Information Technology (IT) management structure just to remain operational, will likely experience considerable down time. 

Similarly, the Stakeholder Enterprise Portal (SEP) and other IT initiatives will not be supported and related problems will go unresolved.  SEP is used to obtain the status of claims and payment history.  The program is user friendly when it operates properly, but intervention at the current stage of development is often required to reconcile technical issues for individual issues and to develop patches for more broad based problems.  With IT staff that support VBA’s operations furloughed, any problems that arise with the IT support systems will simply languish, further slowing the ability of VBA to process claims in a timely fashion.

Paralyzed Veterans also emphasized that the activities in Congress over the last two weeks further affirm the need to approve legislation to make the VBA and all other VA programs a part of advance appropriations.  Advance appropriations have shielded VA health care from most of the harmful effects of the current government shutdown as well as prior continuing resolutions.  Paralyzed Veterans, and its co-authors of The Independent Budget, has called on House and Senate leadership to immediately bring H.R. 813, the “Putting Veterans Funding First Act,” to the floor for consideration, amendment and approval.   

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    House VA Committee Holds Hearing on Affect of Government Shutdown on Veterans