WASHINGTON (AP) — About 3.8 million veterans will not receive disability compensation next month if the partial government shutdown continues into late October, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki told lawmakers Wednesday. Some 315,000 veterans and 202,000 surviving spouses and dependents will see pension payments stopped.
Shinseki spelled out some of the dire consequences of a longer-term shutdown in testimony before the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs. Short term, there's been a delay in processing claims by an average of about 1,400 per day since the shutdown began Oct. 1. That has stalled the department's efforts to reduce the backlog of disability claims pending for longer than 125 days.
In all, more than $6 billion in benefits to about 5 million veterans and their families would be halted with an extended shutdown. In some areas, like health care, there have been few adverse effects. Health care services are funded a year in advance. In others, such as reducing the claims backlog, Shinseki noted that the backlog has increased by 2,000 since the shutdown began Oct. 1.
By comparison, the disability claims backlog had dropped about 31 percent during the six months preceding the shutdown, falling to 418,500. Shinseki drew comparisons to the last shutdown in 1996, a time of sustained peace. The current shutdown occurs as the war in Afghanistan is in its 13th year and as hundreds of thousands have returned from Iraq. They are enrolling in VA care at higher rates than previous generations of veterans.
"They, along with the veterans of every preceding generation, will be harmed if the shutdown continues," Shinseki said. Rep. Jeff Miller, the Republican chairman of the committee, questioned whether the Obama administration had been forthcoming enough in letting veterans know the impact of the shutdown. For example, VA's initial guidance did not mention any negative impact on payments to veterans or the processing of their benefits, although it was updated before the shutdown began to reflect the potential disruption.
Miller also said a statement by President Barack Obama made it unclear about whether veterans would be able to continue getting counseling for PTSD. They can, at any VA health care facility. "We've had some difficulty in the last couple of weeks getting good information about VA's contingency plan and the effects a lapse in appropriation would have on veterans," Miller said.
Shinseki said the VA has confronted "unprecedented legal and programmatic questions" and would do its best to keep lawmakers informed. The House has passed legislation that would provide veterans disability, pension and other benefits if the shutdown is prolonged. But the White House has urged lawmakers not to take a piecemeal approach to continuing government services.
Shinseki made that case as well, saying it's not the best solution for veterans. He noted that even if the VA were fully funded, some services to veterans would suffer. He said the Labor Department has largely shut down its VETS program, which provides employment and counseling services to veterans. The Small Business Administration has closed 10 centers focused on helping veterans create and operate businesses. And the Housing and Urban Development Department is not issuing vouchers to newly homeless vets, though those already receiving the housing aid will still get it.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Wednesday that veterans had done their job and that it was time for Congress to do its job. Republican Mitch McConnell's spokesman, Don Stewart, noted that the senator pushed for a vote on House-passed legislation that would protect disability benefits, but Majority Leader Harry Reid objected.
"Maybe Carney should give him a call," Stewart said. The shutdown has disrupted the generally bipartisan workings of the veterans committees. "Do you think Senator Reid doesn't like our veterans or the VA in particular?" Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., asked Wednesday.
"Personally, I think he very highly values veterans," responded Shinseki, the only Cabinet member to testify before a congressional committee since the partial shutdown began. "As to why we are unable, Congress is unable to do its business, I will leave to the members to discuss."
Meanwhile, some Democrats said a GOP bill passed last week that would continue to fund disability payments didn't include money for such things as medical or prosthetic research and no money to maintain national cemeteries or various construction projects.
"I keep hearing the Senate, the Senate. I put the responsibility directly in the House. We could pass a clean (continuing resolution) and you wouldn't be sitting here," said Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Fla. "I don't blame the Senate. I thank God for the Senate."
Miller said there was bipartisan support in the House for legislation that would fund the entire Department of Veterans Affairs a full year in advance so it so it would not be subject to end-of-the-year brinkmanship. The VA had so far not endorsed the effort.
Associated Press writer Darlene Superville contributed to this report.