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Veterans Affairs accused of 'double-speaking' on impact of budget impasse

As the partial government shutdown drags on, the Department of Veterans Affairs may be changing its tune about the severity of the cutbacks. 

On Sept. 25, a few days before the partial government suspension, the VA issued "contingency guidance" about a potential shutdown that said it had enough leftover money from the 2013 budget to keep the VA running for three weeks. The guidance said "the department's current projection was that 95 percent of VA employees would be either fully funded or required to perform excepted functions during a shutdown event."   

That had a lot of veterans and their families breathing a sigh of relief. 

But one day before the shutdown, President Obama entered the White House briefing room and used veterans as an example of Americans who will suffer. "I also want to be very clear about what would change," Obama said. "Vital services that seniors and veterans, women and children, businesses and our economy depend on would be hamstrung. ... Veterans who've sacrificed for their country will find their support centers unstaffed." 

He even suggested that veterans with post-traumatic stress would have trouble seeing their counselors. 

By Oct. 2, Veterans Affairs also began issuing much more dire warnings than it had days earlier. Specifically, VA spokesman Victoria Dillon said that progress made on addressing the much-publicized backlog of disability claims would be severely reversed. 

"As a result of Congress' failure to act and prevent a lapse in appropriations, VA will not be able to continue overtime for claims processors -- overtime that has helped VA significantly reduce the disability claims backlog by more than 190,000 claims over the last six months," she said in a statement to Fox News. 

That's a reduction in backlogs of 33 percent -- mostly due to mandatory employee overtime, according to the VA. 

Rep. Jeff Miller, the Republican chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, said the VA is speaking out of both sides of its mouth. 

"Over the weekend we get a frantic call from VA saying 'wait a minute, wait a minute, now we meant to say that veteran benefits in fact may be negatively impacted,'" Miller said in an interview with Fox News on Thursday. 

"We were told that on September 30th all mandatory overtime for the review of veteran disability benefits would be going away," Miller said.  "Now we're being told that that's going to be impacted and basically it's going to slow down their ability to process these claims. So they are double speaking right now. It is not fair to use veterans as a pawn in this situation where everybody is looking for truth and transparency -- and we are getting very little of it out of VA or the White House." 

Amid the dispute, Republicans urged Congress to pass special exceptions that would keep the money flowing.   

Though the House approved such a measure late Thursday -- after pausing for a security alert amid a car chase that ended just outside the building -- House Democrats are swinging back, scolding Republicans for trying to pass piecemeal bills. 

Dillon said The Department of Veterans Affairs made clear to its "stakeholders" early on that overtime would be extended into November. 

Therefore, she said, it should have been known that any major budget disruption would have hurt that effective policy. 

Additionally, the VA released the following statement:

"Congress was notified that VA would be forced to end overtime for claims processors if the government shutdown occurred. Our nation’s Veterans have done their job for this country. It’s time for Congress to do theirs and fix this problem by passing a clean continuing resolution to reopen the federal government."

Meanwhile, Democrats seem unwilling to make any more exceptions for individual department. Earlier this week the president signed bipartisan legislation to keep paying the military, but Democrats say they aren't willing to make further concessions. 

Senate Majority leader Harry Reid says the best way to make sure veterans get their benefits is to pass a clean budget bill that funds the whole government, and he has vowed to block the House-passed bill.

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