Shutdown's effects ensnare Maine's veterans
The Portland (Maine) Press Herald
PORTLAND, Maine — Thousands of federal employees in the Veterans Benefits Administration, including several dozen in Maine, were sent home Tuesday as more government offices closed because of a congressional stalemate that has no resolution in sight.
About 7,000 of the agency’s employees were put on unpaid furloughs, along with more than 2,700 Department of Veterans Affairs employees who handle information technology. The VA’s medical facility and services are unaffected by the shutdown.
In Maine, about 35 workers at the Togus VA Medical Center outside Augusta were furloughed, and the Veterans Benefits Administration’s regional office on the hospital grounds was closed to the public. Processing of claims and payments will continue through the benefits administration, but veterans who want in-person consultations with the staff at the regional office will be directed to call a national benefits processing center.
“It is going to have some effect on claims coming in, more than the claims being processed,” said Christopher Bovie, president of AFGE Local 2610, the union that represents Department of Veterans Affairs employees. The Togus employees who process claims are still on the job, he said.
“They’re not being paid right now, but they are still working,” Bovie said.
The furloughs, while limited in scope, show the type of rolling impacts that Americans can expect as the partial shutdown of the federal government drags on.
More than 2,000 civilian defense workers in Maine returned to work Monday after Pentagon officials re-interpreted a law passed in the lead-up to the shutdown, aimed at reducing the effects on the military.
But hundreds of thousands of federal workers across the country remained furloughed Tuesday, the eighth day of the shutdown. Additionally, Maine state officials were trying to figure out how many state employees might have to be laid off temporarily because their positions are federally funded. On Monday, 52 workers at the Disability Determination Office in Winthrop were laid off for that reason.
“While (VA) payments will continue to be issued to veterans, Congress must act soon to prevent any future delays,” U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud of Maine, the top Democrat on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said in a prepared statement.
Of more serious concern is what will happen if the shutdown continues for another three weeks. At that time, the VA would run out of money for disability compensation and pension benefits, potentially affecting millions of older and disabled Americans.
The VA said it has enough money to continue processing and paying disability compensation and pension benefits through October.
Veterans arrived at the Togus benefits administration’s office Tuesday only to find it closed.
“People are going to be upset because they drove all the way here to the VA and they can’t get in,” said Brandon McKinney, supervisor of the Disabled American Veterans office at Togus, one of several service organizations that help veterans navigate the complicated benefits bureaucracy.
Disabled American Veterans and other independent service organizations posted a sign outside the closed VA office directing veterans to their nearby offices for assistance. McKinney said his and other service organizations are still working, despite the government shutdown, but claims may take longer to process.
The shutdown is likely to worsen a nationwide backlog that already numbers in the hundreds of thousands of claims. Under pressure from Congress, the White House and veterans’ advocacy groups, the VA has made some progress in reducing the backlog.
But the shutdown prompted the VA to halt mandatory overtime for staffers who are working to reduce the backlog. Additionally, the appeals process that deals with some of the oldest claims has been suspended, and there are conflicting reports about how current claims are being handled.
“The shutdown has already slowed the claims process and these furloughs can only make things worse,” Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine said in a prepared statement. “For veterans who have been waiting months or even years for the benefits they deserve, that’s outrageous.”