The Department of Veterans Affairs has been able to maintain most operations amid the government shutdown, but Secretary Eric K. Shinseki warned Congress on Wednesday that it will soon have to halt payments to more than 5 million beneficiaries.
Mr. Shinseki said that by next month he likely will run out of money to cover disability and pension payments to veterans and surviving spouses, and also will have to halt GI Bill payments for education expenses.
"Before the end of the month, the mandatory account will not support payments in November — even though I will have checks lined up to draw against it," Mr. Shinseki told the House Veterans Affairs Committee, adding that the shutdown also will bog down the agency's recent efforts to reduce the backlog of disability claims. "Nearly 5,600 veterans a day will not receive a decision on their disability claims."
The VA had been one of the few bright spots where the government continued to operate almost at full tilt despite the shutdown, which began Oct. 1. Most VA programs are funded through mandatory and advance appropriations, which insulated them from the lapse in regular government funds.
But Mr. Shinseki said that is ending.
The Veterans Benefits Administration announced Tuesday that it had furloughed 7,000 of its employees and that VA's 56 regional offices were being closed to the public. Mr. Shinseki told the committee Wednesday that the situation could get worse.
He said he is using the authority granted to him by Congress to use some carryover funds from the previous fiscal year to cover veterans benefits, but once those funds are exhausted he will be forced to furlough about 13,000 more of the VBA employees who handle claims — many of whom are veterans.
Still, the shutdown won't affect the VA medical centers, clinics and other health services. The health system is protected by the Veterans Health Care Budget Reform and Transparency Act, which provides advanced funding for the health care system in order to ensure that it does not get tangled up in these kinds of spending stalemates on Capitol Hill.
Republicans said Congress could fix the potential problem by acting on a House bill that passed on a 421-4 vote over the summer that would fund the VA through Sept. 30, 2014. The House also passed a resolution last week to continue funding veterans benefits.
The Senate, though, has not taken up either bill — opening Democrats up to criticism from Republicans on the committee, who questioned why Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid would not get behind the bill.
"Do you think Sen. Reid doesn't like our veterans or the VA?" Rep. Tim Huelskamp, Kansas Republican, asked Mr. Shinseki.
Democrats countered that House Republicans are to blame for the shutdown because they refuse to hold a vote on a bill that passed out of the Senate last month that would fund all government operations through mid-November.
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