President Obama and congressional leaders signing the Veterans Health Care Budget Reform and Transparency Act
President Obama and congressional leaders signing the Veterans Health Care Budget Reform and Transparency Act // Rep. Nancy Pelosi

How a 2009 Law Is Protecting Veterans from the Government Shutdown

While veterans will not be immune to a government shutdown, the pain will be significantly mitigated by a new law passed in 2009 that is intended to protect veterans’ hard-earned benefits in the event that Congress came to another standstill over the budget.

In 2009, Congress passed and President Obama signed into law a bill to begin funding Department of Veterans Affairs medical accounts one year in advance. This “advanced appropriation” ensures timely and predictable funding for VA hospitals and clinics, which serve 9 million veterans across the country. But it also guards the nation’s veterans from the effects of congressional gridlock.

The latest political fight and the possibility of a government shutdown illustrates why advanced appropriations was a major public policy priority for the veterans community, including Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, which made it the focal point of our 2009 “Storm the Hill” advocacy campaign. The health care and benefits that our servicemembers earned fighting for our country never should be jeopardized by political fighting.

We have heard from many veterans rightfully concerned about how a shutdown would affect the community. Fortunately, because of the advanced appropriations and the requirement to provide mandatory benefit payments, many VA services are protected.

In addition to VA medical facilities and clinics remaining operational, veterans can also continue to receive counseling services and continue to have access to the 24-hour Veterans Crisis Line. 

We also expect that VA benefits would continue to go out to those who have been awarded benefits. Benefit payments are considered to be mandatory financial obligations of the government, and therefore payment is considered to be automatically pre-authorized and should continue during a shutdown. Also, employees whose work is necessary to ensure continued payment of these benefits are expected to continue working.

So that means that if, for instance, a veteran has a 50% disability benefit, he or she should continue to get disability benefits during a shutdown. If he or she has a VA pension, these benefits should continue to be paid. Existing benefit payments for the Post-9/11 GI Bill should also be distributed as scheduled, though new claims would be paused.

While veterans and their families are more protected than other groups in the case of a shutdown, that isn’t too say that an impact won’t be felt.

The government shutdown may threaten progress on ending the VA disability claims backlog. Since March, the VA backlog has decreased by almost 30 percent because of a renewed focus, new initiatives, and required overtime for processors. About 450,000 veterans remain in the backlog, however, and much work remains to help them and get the backlog to zero.

These efforts are in jeopardy if the government shuts down. In the past, the VA has been able to plan ahead to retain the large majority of the claims workers to process VA disability claims. Yet, because the VA will lose administrative support, claims processing may be slowed and all work processing appeals or new claims will stop. It is also unlikely that mandatory overtime – a key component of the VA’s major progress on the disability claims – will be continued under a government shutdown. 

There are other ways the VA and servicemembers will be affected beyond the VA backlog. The VA’s customer service hotlines will likely close, meaning that veterans’ questions will go unanswered. Furthermore, recent VA efforts to educate and enroll veterans about their benefits may be delayed.  

That any services or benefits will be affected shows why we need advanced appropriations to fund the VA’s full discretionary budget a year in advance. We must ensure that all VA accounts will have predictable funding in an era where continuing resolutions and threats of government shutdowns are all too frequent. America’s veterans have already paid their debt to this country and in return for their service, our nation promised them care and benefits to help transition back into civilian life. IAVA supports the “Putting Veterans Funding First Act,” which would ensure full advanced funding.

Even though the VA and veterans are protected in many ways - thanks to advanced appropriations and other statuary requirements – it is not fair to say that those who have and continue to serve our nation are untouched by the current debate in Washington.

In the future, veterans should be assured of all the care and benefits they have earned.

Tom Tarantino is Chief Policy Officer for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.