The massive backlog in veterans’ disability benefits was finally — finally — beginning to shrink. Thanks to the government shutdown, that progress is at risk, along with the next dispersal of benefits to the thousands of veterans who receive aid from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Earlier this year, media outlets began reporting on the growing backlog of applications that veterans had submit applications to receive disability benefits after discharging from the armed services. That number ballooned as high as 608,000 at its peak in March, leading to a tailspin of worry from outraged pundits and outside groups slamming the Department of Veterans Affairs. Adding to their concern was the length of time the backlog caused veterans to have to wait for their benefits to kick in, as many as two hundred days in some cases.
Even The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart got in on the act. “I guess running a bureaucracy with a single goal is just to complicated. There is just no way to do something like that effectively,” Stewart said. One group, Concerned Veterans for America, even said that the backlog was quickly approaching one million veterans who were waiting for their benefits — though without much evidence to back their claim.
But since then, with little fanfare, that backlog has been shrinking. Since the peak, the number has dropped from more than 600,00 to 421,793 as of last week — a 31 percent drop. The decline has come even as the reasons for the growth, including boosted awareness of the benefits offered and the increased number of items covered, have remained steady. It surely also helps that the initial surge of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who were leaving the force has itself tapered off.
The drop should be cause for celebration. Instead, it seems as though that progress is now under threat. While the Congress passed the Pay Our Military Act to ensure that active duty military continues to receive paychecks during the shutdown, staffers at the Department of Veterans Affairs weren’t so lucky. The VA has enough funding to remain open and processing applications for the next few weeks, according to the department’s shutdown field guide. “However, in the event of a prolonged shutdown, claims processing and payments in these programs would be suspended when available funding is exhausted,” it warns. That means that though October’s checks have gone out, should the shutdown last for several weeks November’s payments are in doubt.
“News that the Pay Our Military Act was signed into law created a collective sigh of relief late last night at Service Women’s Action Network. But that relief was short-lived because then we remembered: this law does nothing to ensure veterans’ disability claims are being processed or that they will have access to the benefits they earned,” Anu Bhagwati, Service Women’s Action Network executive director and a former Marine Corps commander, said in a statement.
Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans for America, a veterans support group, is telling its members that they should still go ahead and file their benefits claims during the shutdown, to ensure that they don’t fall to the back of the waiting line. But any new claims won’t be processed so long as the shutdown. “All work on appeals will be halted during the shutdown,” the group also warns.
Other groups are lobbying Congress to pass legislation that would restore funding to the VA in the coming months and reopen the government, warning of the consequences of a lengthy shutdown. “With all intake and no output, the backlog will continue to grow until Congress can reach a compromise and appropriate funds for the VA,” Joe Davis, Public Affairs Director with the Veterans of Foreign Wars, told ThinkProgress. “As combat veterans, VFW members want the Defense Department and VA fully protected from the devastating effects of a government shutdown. They are concerned about their hard-earned benefits, the national debt, and the inability of Congress to do the job the job they were elected to do.”
The odds that a shutdown lasts long enough to cause the backlog to start to grow again seem to be increasing. Attempts from the Republican-led House of Representatives to pass legislation that would overturn the least politically popular parts of the shutdown — including adding funding for veterans, parks, and the District of Columbia government — failed last night. The White House has threatened to veto further attempts to pass piecemeal appropriations, rather than a full budget or clean continuing resolution. And now, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) is floating the idea of tying the impasse over healthcare implementation to raising the debt ceiling before the limit is reached in a few weeks.