Veterans regional offices will be closed and nobody will answer their phones beginning Tuesday morning as the government shutdown forces furloughs of 7,000 employees of the Veterans Benefits Administration.
“All public access to VBA regional offices and facilities will be suspended,” said Veterans Affairs Department spokeswoman Victoria Dillon.
Walk-ins and phone calls to regional offices are common to get status reports on benefits and to seek help. The voluntary officers from veterans organizations who help file claims are located in many regional offices, so access to them could be restricted.
While phones won’t be answered at regional offices, most toll-free numbers where veterans can get help with benefits remain open. One exception is the GI Bill call center, which is closed and won’t reopen until the VA receives funding.
The Veterans Benefits Administration has more than 21,000 employees, most of who will remain on the job. Of the 332,000 total VA employees, fewer than 15,000 are subject to furloughs during lapses in appropriations, according to VA’s contingency planning. The bulk of the furlough-exempt employees are involved in medical care.
Additionally, 2,754 employees of the VA’s Office of Information Technology were furloughed on Monday. Veterans might not see an immediate impact, but all development of VA software will stop, including work on the Veterans Benefits Management System that is a key part of plans for eliminating the claims backlog by the end of 2015.
Another shoe could drop soon as VA officials warn that a government shutdown ending in the last two weeks of October could result in delays in Nov. 1 benefits payments, including disability compensation, GI Bill living stipends and dependency and indemnity compensation for survivors. No firm date has been given for when the VA would run out of money
Veterans hospitals and clinics remain open, as do counseling and rehabilitation programs. An updated list of what is open and closed is available here: www.va.gov/opa/appropriations_lapse_plan.asp.
Benefits claims continue to be processed and new claims are being accepted. However, Dillon warned the pace of processing is slowing.
“VA’s ability to make significant progress reducing the disability claims backlog is hampered without the increased productivity gained from overtime for claims processors,”she said. Mandatory overtime “has helped VA significantly reduce the disability claims backlog by more than 190,000 claims over the last six months,” she said.
As of Monday, there were 725,165 pending benefits claims, including 418,711 that are considered by the VA to be part of the so-called “backlog” because they have been pending longer than the 125-day processing goal.
There was a very modest drop of 304 claims in the total, but the VA did hit one landmark as the number of pending disability compensation claims fell just below 400,000.
Claims processors have been working a minimum of 20 hours a month of overtime since mid-May in an effort to process claims. Before the government shut down on Oct. 1, the VA had intended to keep mandatory overtime until Nov.16, then switch to voluntary overtime through the end of the calendar year. However, mandatory overtime as stopped during the shutdown, she said.
Working extra hours, along with several initiatives to improve claims procedures, resulted in a 30 percent drop in the claims backlog since March, Dillon said, as the VA was processing about 100,000 claims a month.
The House Veterans’ Affairs Committee wants to question VA Secretary Eric Shinseki on Wednesday about how the VA is operating under a shutdown but it is unclear whether Shinseki will appear.
In a letter requesting Shinseki’s testimony, Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., committee chairman, complains that Congress feels like it has been left in the dark.
“As you should know, I and others have sought greater clarity regarding shutdown-related efforts on VA over the last week, yet we have received no answers from your department,” Miller said in an Oct. 4 letter.
Miller said he expects Shinseki to address the timing and scope of any interruptions in veterans’ benefits, the impact on claims processing of the loss of funding for overtime and why the VA has stopped providing briefings for Congress if the people who would provide the briefings are still working.