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House passes shutdown exemption for VA

Oct. 3, 2013 - 06:53PM   |  
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The government shutdown exemption for the Veterans’ Affairs Department passed Thursday by the House of Representative does not resolve all of VA’s potential problems.

Approved by a 259-157 vote, the measure comes in response to a warning from VA that it could run out money to pay veterans benefits by late October if a government shutdown continues. Not only are Nov. 1 payments at risk, but VA officials said claims processing could also slow.

The House measure, HJ Res 72, would provide funds for disability compensation, survivors’ benefits and monthly GI Bill checks.

But the resolution would not fix everything. It includes no funds for medical and prosthetic research, information technology, the National Cemetery Administration, or the VA inspector general, and does not provide grants for state cemeteries and state veterans homes, according to an analysis provided to Congress by veterans groups.

Additionally, the funding resolution would provide about $6 billion less for benefits than the House approved in June when it passed its version of VA’s full-year appropriations bill for 2014.

In thw long run, none of that likely matters, because the Senate has no plans to take up the bill and the White House has warned it would be vetoed by President Obama.

While Obama did sign on Monday a bill that exempts military pay from being interrupted in the shutdown, the administration has since taken a hard line as the House of Representatives has come up with pile of single-issue measures to appropriate money for popular programs while leaving the overall federal shutdown in place.

In addition to money for veterans benefits, the House has bills to open national parks and national landmarks, to fund medical research programs at the National Institutes of Health, to fund parts of the budget of the District of Columbia and to expand on the number of federal civilians exempt from shutdown-related furloughs.

All of the votes against the House resolution came from Democrats.

Rep. Michael Michaud of Maine, ranking Democrat on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said the funding exemption “is nothing more than a political ploy.”

If Republicans “were really serious about helping veterans,” they would vote for a full government funding bill, he said. “Passing that bill will make sure that veterans are no longer used — like they’re being used today — as a pawn in a political party’s scheme.”

However, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said the resolution was part of a “good-faith efforts to keep key parts of the government running, including important veterans’ programs.”

“With the backlog of disability claims continuing to pile up and veterans being forced to wait longer and longer to receive their benefits, it is critical that the White House and Congress work together to support our veterans,” Boehner said, noting President Clinton and Congress worked together during the last government shutdown in 1996 to protect veterans programs and benefits.

VA spokeswoman Victoria Dillon said processing of veterans’ claims is hurt by the shutdown.

“VA will not be able to continue overtime for claims processors,” she said. Overtime is a key part of VA’s strategy for eliminating the claims backlog by the end of 2015.

Claims workers had been on mandatory overtime for months, and VA intended to continue mandatory overtime through early November and then switch to voluntary overtime for the remainder of the calendar year, Dillion said.

VA blamed Congress for the possibility that it won’t get the backlog eliminated on schedule, although House Veterans’ Affairs Committee aides said they were never informed that VA had any plans to extend mandatory overtime beyond Sept. 30, the last day of the fiscal year.

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