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Government Shutdown Will Add To VA's Backlog


All right. The partial government shutdown could take an especially painful toll on American veterans. The most serious consequences will not come unless the shutdown continues for weeks. Those consequences would include cutting off disability and education benefits. Politicians on both sides have scrambled to show their support for vets, but as NPR's Quil Lawrence reports, veterans applying for new benefits may already be suffering.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: VA hospitals and clinics are still open and the 24-hour Veteran's Crisis Suicide Hotline is still staffed. VA benefits checks are still going out, but that's where things get a little foggy. The money allocated for disability payments or for students on the GI bill, that runs out in a few weeks. Vets don't know what will happen if the shutdown lasts that long, which is pretty unnerving, says Verna Jones at the American Legion.

VERNA JONES: Veterans are at a loss and they're affected. And they come to the American Legion for answers, and we've made calls and asked leadership and we're getting bits and pieces of answers because nobody knows.

LAWRENCE: A lot of public outreach programs are shut down already, so it's hard for vets to find out what's going on and Jones points out that some severely disabled vets and their caregivers live from VA check to VA check. That's how the shutdown affects people already getting veterans benefits. For veterans waiting to find out if they're eligible for benefits, the damage may have already begun.

TOM TARRANTINO: It's sort of a forehead-slapping here-we-go-again.

LAWRENCE: Tom Tarrantino works with Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. He says veterans had just started to believe that the infamous VA backlog was shrinking. In part because the VA had its staff working mandatory overtime, the backlog is down 30 percent since March. But when the government shut down, the overtime stopped and all appeals were suspended.

TARRANTINO: And while they've been seeing progress and they've been seeing a light at the end of the tunnel, a government shutdown just puts that light farther away and it's disheartening that the United States Congress can't do their job, and it is an affront to the service and sacrifice of millions of Americans who count on the government for services and care.

LAWRENCE: Some in Congress have proposed funding veterans benefits separately, but Tarrantino points out that the VA can't process a claim without getting information from the Social Security Administration or the Pentagon, where the offices they need to call may well have been shut down. Quil Lawrence, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering veterans' issues nationwide. He won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his coverage of American veterans and a Gracie Award for coverage of female combat veterans. In 2019 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America honored Quil with its IAVA Salutes Award for Leadership in Journalism.
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