VA Furloughs Anger Lawmakers, Veterans

Wednesday, 09 Oct 2013 08:58 AM

By Sandy Fitzgerald

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The shutdown-driven furlough of 10,000 VA employees is drawing heated criticism from veterans and from lawmakers, who are expected to give Veteran Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki a hard grilling when he testifies before a congressional panel Wednesday.

In a letter to Shinseki on Tuesday, House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller demanded information about an expensive Department of Veterans Affairs public-relations outreach campaign, including ad buys during pro-football broadcasts that started before the shutdown began, reports The Daily Mail.

Miller also lambasted Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on Tuesday, saying it's "well past time for Harry Reid to stop the games and fund the VA," according to Politico.

The Florida Republican pointed out that the House passed the full military and VA appropriations bill 125 days ago. Miller said if Reid can't get the bill up for a vote in the Senate, "he owes America's veterans an explanation for why he's putting their benefits at risk."

Miller's letter and criticism of Reid were partly prompted by the furloughs of VA workers, including 7,000 who work in the benefits department and 2,754 who work under the agency's information-technology office.

The furloughs are expected to slow or possibly halt the processing of new benefit claims, put counseling programs on hold, and restrict public access that veterans have to some VA facilities, according to Politico.

New VA software development to help with processing claims also is on hold, but benefit payments will continue until the funding is exhausted, possibly by the end of October, Politico reported.

VA hospitals, clinics, and other health services designed to aid veterans will remain open because of appropriations that have already been made. But veteran burials handled through the National Cemetery Administration will be put on a "reduced schedule" because of the shutdown.

“Now we’ve reached the point where VA can’t even process benefits claims for our men and women who served in uniform,” Daniel Dellinger, national commander of the American Legion, told Politico. “Our nation’s leaders need a reality check. Do they really think they are serving the best interests of our veterans — or the best interests of all Americans — by forcing government agencies to shut down?”

In his letter, Miller claimed that the VA also has been wasting money as the government shutdown loomed, including "more than $1 million on television advertisements from Sept. 9 through Oct. 13 in the Washington, D.C., metro area alone," reports The Daily Mail.

Joining Miller in questioning recent VA actions, Kansas Republican Sen. Jerry Moran also demanded to know why the department spent $526,000 on artwork while the shutdown was being threatened.

"At a time when the nation’s crushing debt threatens the well-being of our veterans and all Americans, and when spending across the government is being reduced, I fail to comprehend the reason why this purchase was authorized," Moran said in his own letter to Shinseki.

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