Vets agency furloughs 7K, closes offices

Regional offices run by the Department of Veterans Affairs closed Tuesday as furloughs began for 7,000 employees of the agency’s Benefits Administration (VBA).

“All public access to VBA regional offices and facilities will be suspended ... due to a lack of funds,” Veterans Affairs Department spokeswoman Victoria Dillon said in a statement provided to The Hill

The government shutdown, in its eighth day, has caused agencies to send government workers home who are deemed “nonessential.” 

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, for example, called some of its furloughed employees back to work to track Tropical Storm Karen, but they were then refurloughed Monday. 

No one would be answering phones at regional VA offices, which veterans call to check on the status of their disability benefits. 

Consequently, many veterans’ benefits will be delayed. VA’s ability to reduce the claims backlog, Dillon says, is hampered without claims processors who work overtime. Overtime was eliminated when the shutdown began.  

“Clear progress for Veterans and their families is at risk without immediate action by Congress to make fiscal year 2014 funding available by passing a clean continuing resolution to reopen the government,” her statement said.

House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) slammed Senate Democrats for not agreeing to piecemeal bills to fund the VA. The ball, Miller said, is now in Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's (D-Nev.) court.

“Harry Reid could stop these furloughs and ensure veterans’ benefits immediately by acting on either of these bills, but instead he’s content to let them gather dust on his desk," he said in a statement. "It’s well past time for Harry Reid to stop the games and fund VA. If not, he owes America’s veterans an explanation for why he’s putting their benefits at risk.”

The committee's top Democrat, Rep. Mike Michaud (D-Maine), said Washington needs to "get its act together and compromise" to end the shutdown.

"This announcement appears consistent with VA’s contingency plans, although it provides details and drives home the point that this shutdown has serious consequences,” Michaud said in a statement. “While payments will continue to be issued to veterans, Congress must act soon to prevent any future delays."

House Republicans have tried to fund the VA in one of their piecemeal bills to fund the government, but Senate Democrats and President Obama have rejected it, arguing the government must be funded in a single bill.

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VA employees tasked with developing software systems to eliminate the disability claims backlog by 2015 have also been sent home. Over the last six months, the VA has reduced the claims backlog by 190,000. 

Daniel M. Dellinger, national commander of The American Legion, expressed outrage Tuesday at the shutdown’s effect on veterans. 

“Now we’ve reached the point where VA can’t even process benefits claims for our men and women who served in uniform,” he said in a statement. “Our nation’s leaders need a reality check. Do they really think they are serving the best interests of our veterans — or the best interests of all Americans — by forcing government agencies to shut down?”

The shutdown hasn’t affected all of the VA's services, however.

VA medical centers, including hospitals, clinics and other health services, remain open because the Veterans Health Administration has advance appropriations for fiscal 2014. 

Burials at the VA’s cemeteries will continue, but might be reduced. 

Most VA toll-free numbers are available for veterans to seek help. The G.I. Bill call center, which handles education benefits, will remain closed until the government is funded. 

A majority of the Veterans Benefits Administration’s 21,000 employees are still on the job. Only about four percent of the VA’s 332,000 workers have been furloughed. 

Obama administration officials assured veterans a week ago they wouldn’t be immediately affected by the shutdown but would be if it carries on for two or three weeks. 

The VA says, in the event of a “prolonged shutdown,” the department would continue to review and update its contingency plan. 

On Wednesday, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki is scheduled to testify before the House Veterans Affairs Committee to update lawmakers on the shutdown’s impact on his agency. 

--This report was updated at 12:22 p.m.