Veterans, impatient over shutdown, demand protection for VA benefits
By LEO SHANE III | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 4, 2013
WASHINGTON — Veterans groups, angry that they are being used as political pawns, are lashing out at lawmakers, telling them to find an end to the government shutdown and ensure that veterans benefits and services aren’t disrupted.
In a Friday press conference outside the World War II memorial, American Legion National Commander Daniel Dellinger called the partial government shutdown insulting and disrespectful to veterans. Department of Veterans Affairs officials have warned that an extended shutdown could stall disability and education benefits checks, as well as slow pending claims.
“That a World War II or Korean War veteran now has to worry about their pension check defies common sense and morality,” he said. “They need to get this done.”
When asked who was at fault for the shutdown, Dellinger replied “I blame them all: The president, the House and the Senate.”
The news conference came as the shutdown entered its fourth day without any political solution in sight.
A continuing resolution to resume normal federal operations — even without a new, full federal budget — has been mired in disagreement all week over Republican’s insistence of changes to the new Affordable Care Act, and Democrats refusal to include the topic in a budget deal.
Earlier in the week, leadership of the Veterans of Foreign Wars chastised the White House and Congress in a letter also demanding an end to the shutdown, saying it endangers both national security and veterans’ care.
“We expect more from our elected leadership, and not a piecemeal approach that would use the military or disabled veterans as leverage in a political game,” wrote William Thien, commander of the group.
Leadership at Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America said Congress “needs to stop playing games” and end the shutdown before the effects on veterans worsen. Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich. — one of the last two WWII veterans in Congress — and former senator Bob Dole issued a statement saying the shutdown dishonors the “sacrifice and bravery” of all veterans.
VA officials have said that most operations and employees are currently unaffected by the shutdown. Health centers remain open, benefit checks are still being sent out, and only about 5 percent of the department’s employees have been furloughed.
But the department has stopped overtime for claims processors, which could lead to a slowdown in completing cases and an increase in the claims backlog. Furloughs will increase as the budget fight drags on. And, officials warn, “in the event of a prolonged shutdown, claims processing and payments in these programs would be suspended when available funding is exhausted.”
On Thursday, House lawmakers passed legislation to soften the impact of a shutdown on veterans programs, funding benefits payouts and processing even as government operations are halted.
House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., called the legislation a critical step to ensure that Congress doesn’t “abandon” veterans. Committee ranking member Mike Michaud, D-Maine, called it nothing more than a political stunt. Senate Democratic leadership has already said they won’t support piecemeal legislation to mitigate the shutdown pain.
The VFW, Disabled American Veterans and a host of other veterans groups have publicly criticized short-term solutions as well, saying they want Congress to pass a full budget and remove any uncertainty facing veterans resources.
On Friday, American Legion officials echoed that sentiment.
“We’re for the American government funding VA. We don’t care how, we just want it done,” said Peter Gaytan, executive director of the group. “It’s not about the right or the left. It’s about the veterans.”