June 18, 2018
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Shutdown’s effect on Maine spreads to VA benefits administrators

By Christopher Cousins, BDN Staff

AUGUSTA, Maine — The federal government shutdown’s effect on Maine continued to spread Tuesday with the announcement that the Department of Veterans Affairs has closed all local offices of the Veterans Benefits Administration to the public.

The announcement came a day after Gov. Paul LePage announced that 56 federally funded employees in the Department of Health and Human Services were laid off.

U.S. Reps. Mike Michaud and Chellie Pingree, both Democrats from Maine, said Tuesday morning that nearly 10,000 VA workers were affected nationwide. Ed Gilman, a spokesman for Michaud, said that between 30 and 40 VA employees in Maine were told they were being furloughed as of Tuesday morning.

“Anybody who directly processes or works on claims was exempted and will continue to work on claims,” wrote Gilman in an email to the BDN. “Those that were furloughed worked in supporting roles such as human resources or the analysis of business procedures.”

A Togus Veterans’ Benefits Administration spokeswoman said that 34 employees have been “sent home until further notice.”

The furloughs mean that local offices of the Veterans Benefits Administration — including the one in Togus — will be closed to the public. However, offices and employees involved with medical care of veterans will not be affected, according to Pingree. In addition, she said that national benefits processing centers will remain open and can be reached toll-free at 800-827-1000.

Officials associated with the Togus VA Regional Office said in a statement Tuesday afternoon that Congress should act to fund critical government operations as soon as possible to avoid a more expansive interruption of services.

“VA has funds available to ensure claims processing and payments in the compensation, pension, education and vocational rehabilitation programs will continue through late October,” reads the statement. “However, in the event of a prolonged shutdown, claims processing and payments in these programs will be suspended when funds are exhausted. Due to the shutdown, the Veterans Benefits Administration will not be able to continue overtime for claims processors.”

Pingree decried the shutdown’s effect on veterans.

“The shutdown has already slowed down the claims process and these furloughs can only make things worse,” Pingree said in a written statement. “For veterans who have been waiting months or even years for the benefits they deserve, that’s outrageous. This is the latest example of the real pain that the shutdown is causing to families all across the country.”

Topsham resident William “Chick” Ciciotte, 80, an Air Force veteran with 22 years of service, said that he and others learned of the furloughs Monday night during a meeting in Augusta.

“What the director said is that he and his secretary will be on board and that they’ll have a skeleton crew to process some claims but that all of the veterans benefits services have been shut down,” said Ciciotte, noting that officials at the meeting said the VBA in Maine had been processing up to 2,000 claims a month, but that number has now ground to nearly nothing.

“There is a lot of confusion. A lot of our elderly vets are confused by the effect on their TRICARE or health benefits,” said Ciciotte. “It stinks. It’s irresponsible. We’ve got people over in Afghanistan with their lives on the line and we can’t take care of things here in our own country. It doesn’t make any sense to me.”

Nationally, the furloughs affect more than 7,000 Veterans Benefits Administration employees and another 2,754 Office of Information Technology employees.

Michaud, who is the lead Democrat on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said the furloughs result from the exhaustion of funding from the latest congressional budget resolution. The federal government shut down all but what are deemed essential services on Oct. 1 as the result of a continuing political impasse on Capitol Hill.

Michaud said that despite the closure of the regional centers, claims processing and payments are expected to continue through late October.

“This announcement appears consistent with VA’s contingency plans, although it provides details and drives home the point that this shutdown has serious consequences,” said Michaud in a prepared statement. “While payments will continue to be issued to veterans, Congress must act soon to prevent any future delays.”

Michaud said the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee is scheduled to host hearings with VA Secretary Eric Shinseki beginning at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday to learn about the shutdown’s effect on VA benefits and services.

The reason that VA medical services won’t be affected in the short term is because they receive advanced appropriations to guard against government shutdowns.

Michaud said he has co-sponsored a bill, H.R. 813, which would provide funding for the VA’s discretionary budget a year ahead of schedule.

Last week, Michaud opposed a Republican-sponsored bill that he said shorted the VA’s budget by some $6 billion. In remarks on the U.S. House floor, Michaud called that bill a “political ploy,” according to a copy of his remarks provided by his staff.

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