Government shutdown 101: What does it mean for veterans?

The Department of Veterans Affairs learned its lessons in the government shutdown of 1995. For that reason, disruptions to veterans would be minimal if the government shuts down.

Robert Craig/The News Journal/AP/File
Veterans stand in silence on Vietnam Veterans Day at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Dover, Del., on March 30. Veterans will be only minimally affected by a potential government shutdown.

For US military veterans warily eying the possibility of a government shutdown and wondering how it will impact their care, Department of Veterans Affairs officials say former service members will see no change in their health benefits – including those involving hospital visits and other doctors’ appointments – in the event that Congress fails to pass a budget.

Because the Department of Veterans Affairs is on a two-year budget cycle, “They’ve already got all their money for the next fiscal year,” David Autry, deputy national director of communications for the Disabled American Veterans organization, explains. These advance appropriations account for more than 80 percent of the VA’s discretionary appropriations, according to VA officials.

“The good news is that since the veterans’ health-care system has advance appropriations, they are not going to be affected at all,” Mr. Autry says.

The fact that the VA gets federal financing for health-care services in two-year increments is no accident. Disabled American Veterans, along with other veterans’ organizations, pushed to have Congress to pass a law to grant the VA advance appropriations for more than a decade.

Lessons of 1995

This lobbying began when veterans had to endure the last major US government shutdown in 1995. Back then, the VA was not accepting any new claims, and there were delays in processing benefits checks. The push to pass legislation ultimately proved successful. “We were really united in making that happen,” Mr. Autry says.

Today, the VA “will continue to provide 100 percent of our health-care services to enrolled veterans through VA medical facilities across the country,” according to a VA official who did not wish to be named because the VA’s operational plans are still being finalized. “Veterans’ medical appointments will not be canceled or delayed” in the event of a shutdown, the official adds.

As far as benefits checks go, “We’re taking steps to make sure that at least in the short term, those checks go out,” says the official. April benefits checks have already been sent out. Although there will be a reduced VA staff in the event of a shutdown, most of the VA checks are processed electronically. The reduction in paper checks since 1995 cuts down on the workload required to process them, Autry point out.

The VA will also continue to provide funeral services at national cemeteries, though “some cemeteries may operate on a modified schedule,” according to the VA official.

How VA might be affected

There will be VA services that may be suspended in the event of a shutdown. There may be no staff on duty to answer consumer inquiries by e-mail, phone, or mail, according to the official. Routine recruiting, hiring, and training will also likely be put on hold, along with fraud investigations.

While the latest round of GI Bill payments have already gone out, there may be some disruption in applications for benefits, particularly those involving rolling admissions to universities, says Autry.

The VA plans to provide a “Veterans Field Guide” with more detailed information on the impact on benefits and services in the event of a shutdown. The DAV will also have national service officers on call at “If they can’t reach anyone at VA,” says Autry, “they can check with our folks.”

Veterans-support organizations, along with the VA, have long been preparing themselves in the event of a government shutdown, he says. “We’ve been through this too many times,” Autry adds, “and the government’s track record of getting the budget done on time isn’t good.”

Government shutdown 101:

Introduction: What would a shutdown mean for you?

Part 1: What does it mean for veterans?

Part 2: Will I still have to file my taxes?

Part 3: Will Social Security and Medicare be affected?

Part 4: What does it mean for the military?

Part 5: What does it mean for homeland security?

Part 6: What does it mean for Medicaid?

Part 7: How will it affect unemployment insurance?

Part 8: What does it mean for welfare and food stamps?


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