The Department of Veterans Affairs has closed public access to regional benefits centers because of the partial federal government shutdown.
The VA announced this week that it has sufficient money to process claims and payments for compensation, pension, education and vocational rehabilitation programs until late October.
The department operates 58 regional benefits centers. An Indianapolis center, which typically employs 150 people, administers benefits to military veterans in Indiana. About 499,000 veterans lived in Indiana in 2012, according to a VA website.
Only one benefits employee is assigned to the VA campus in Fort Wayne, according to Michael Brady, public affairs officer for VA Northern Indiana Health Care System.
George Jarboe, Allen County’s Veterans’ Service officer, said the furlough of thousands of nonessential employees at the regional benefits centers has hindered communications from his office, which assists veterans with benefits applications.
“It’s very difficult to get a hold of people” at the centers, Jarboe said.
He has been telling veterans who contact his office that the government shutdown might delay their claims for benefits. Jarboe and his assistant meet daily with a dozen or so veterans and receive dozens of phone calls from others.
“I really haven’t had any serious complaints from anybody. They think it’s kind of foolish that we got to this point,” Jarboe said about the political stalemate that prevented Congress from extending appropriations into fiscal 2014.
The shutdown “won’t affect what we do. It will affect the outcome of what we do,” Jarboe said.
VANIHCS’ Brady stressed that veterans’ health services, including those at the VA Medical Center on Lake Avenue, are not affected by the government shutdown that began Oct. 1.
“We are staying open to provide care to our veterans,” Brady said Tuesday in an email.
More than $6.2 billion in benefits for nearly 5.2 million veterans will be suspended in November if the government shutdown continues into late October, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki said Wednesday.
Testifying before the House Veterans Affairs Committee, Shinseki said the shutdown has hurt the department’s efforts to reduce its backlog of claims pending for more than 125 days.
In remarks broadcast by C-SPAN, committee member Rep. Jackie Walorski, R-2nd, pointed out to Shinseki that 11,460 claims are pending at the Indianapolis benefits center. She said the center has been taking 402 days on average to process claims.
In a rare display of bipartisanship, the Republican-controlled House voted 425-0 Wednesday to restore funding for benefits paid to survivors of U.S. troops who die in the line of duty.
The White House pledged the same day to fund survivors’ benefits.
The Democratic-run Senate has resisted House efforts to restore funding for agencies on a piecemeal basis, although both chambers did approve legislation, ahead of the shutdown, to extend pay for active-duty military personnel.