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Furloughs may further delay long-stalled veterans benefits

By Jennifer McDermott

Publication: The Day

Published October 09. 2013 4:00AM
Groton, Newington offices closed till further notice

Veterans who need help with benefits claims cannot call or visit Veterans Benefits Administration offices in Newington or Groton until the government reopens.

In the second week of the government shutdown, the VBA furloughed 7,000 employees nationally and stopped giving the public access to its 56 regional offices, including the Hartford Regional Office in Newington.

A voicemail message Tuesday at the benefits office at the Naval Submarine Base in Groton said the office was closed until further notice due to the shutdown and furloughs.

The VBA administers compensation, pension, education, vocational rehabilitation and employment, loan guaranty and insurance benefit programs for veterans. The furloughs affect one-third of its workforce. Educational and vocational counseling for veterans and outreach activities also have been suspended.

Veterans Administration medical centers, clinics and other health services, however, are funded through fiscal 2014 and will remain open.

VBA employees who were not furloughed will continue to process claims, but many fear veterans will have to wait longer to be compensated. Overtime will not be paid to claims processors who were scheduled to work extra hours through Nov. 16 to help reduce the claims backlog.

And, according to the VA, payments in these benefit programs could stop if the shutdown continues past late October.

"Because Congress and the White House refuse to speak to each other, our country's veterans are suffering more with each passing day of this extremely dangerous impasse," Daniel M. Dellinger, national commander of The American Legion, said in a statement.

Rich Dumancas, the Legion's deputy director of claims, said veterans' claims also may be wrongfully denied if supporting evidence gets stuck in the mailroom.

"It's going to be stacked until employees can come back and distribute it internally. It's going to create another backlog," he said.

The VA sends out checks on the first of the month, so many veterans are concerned about what will happen if the shutdown lasts past Nov. 1, Dumancas said. The Hartford Regional Office distributes about $15 million in disability benefits per month to 22,700 people, according to its website.

The Republican-controlled House of Representatives passed a continuing resolution that would have extended current government spending for six weeks, but also would have defunded the Affordable Care Act, which Senate leaders have said they will not do. The shutdown began Oct. 1.

The VA also furloughed 2,754 people in its Office of Information Technology, who work on software for the VA, including a new electronic benefits management system meant to address the backlog in veterans' benefits claims.

U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said, "in continuing this reckless shutdown, the House GOP is turning its back on brave men and women who have already been subjected to unconscionable delays in receiving critical, hard-earned benefits."

"This important work should be expedited and prioritized, not held hostage or used as a bargaining chip in disingenuous piecemeal proposals," he said in a statement.

Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Florida, chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, said it is "a shame that Washington's dysfunction has led to the furloughs of thousands of dedicated VA employees and may jeopardize benefits for some veterans."

But, he said in a statement, the House has passed two bills that would end these furloughs and fund the VA regardless of how long the government shutdown lasts and the Senate has not acted on them.

Most of the civilian employees of the Department of Defense were called back to work this week after being furloughed, but training and other activities at the Naval Submarine Base and Connecticut National Guard facilities are still being curtailed.

Linda Schwartz, commissioner of the state Department of Veterans Affairs, said her office received numerous calls from concerned veterans after erroneous information circulated Tuesday about educational benefits being canceled. Those are being processed as normal, she said. She also stressed that veterans' health care should not be affected by the shutdown.

"It is important for veterans to know there's a real commitment to ensuring veterans are taken care of despite all of the obstacles," she said.

Veterans who want to file benefits claims or check on a claim's status may call (800) 827-1000. Schwartz said veterans also may call her office at (866) 928-8387.

j.mcdermott@theday.com

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