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Maine Veterans Face Longer Waits for Benefits, as Shutdown Drags On
10/08/2013   Reported By: Jay Field

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs will continue to process the medical claims of Maine vets through the end of October, despite a furlough today that sent as many as 40 VA workers in the state home, and closed benefit offices to the public. Nationwide, nearly 10,000 VA workers were furloughed as part of the federal government shutdown. In Maine, the furloughs have also put a program at risk that helps veterans get vocational training so they can better compete in the job market. Jay Field reports.

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Public word of the furloughs came late morning from members of Maine's congressional delegation. But the news first began to leak out among some of Maine's more than 140,000 veterans last night. The heads of the state's major veterans organizations were gathered in Augusta for a meeting and received a briefing from officials at the Togus VA Regional Office.

"They were saying they do so many claims a month that this was going to put them way behind on them," says James Laflin, commander for the AMVETS Department of Maine. As part of the furloughs, all Maine veterans benefits offices will close, including the one in Togus.

The VA has enough money to continue processing claims through the end of October. But after that, says Laflin, veterans who are already used to enduring long waits on claims could see the situation get even worse. "They're going to be processing ones they have, and then, if some come through electronically, they'll work on those," he says. "The ones that come in new will be dated that particular day, but they won't be able to work on them until they get a full crew."

In a statement, emailed to reporters, officials at Togus wrote, "The VA strongly believes that a lapse in appropriations should not have occurred and Congress should act to fund critical Government operations...During a shutdown, VA medical centers, clinics and other health services have advance appropriations for 2014 and will remain open. VA has funds available to ensure claims processing and payments in the compensation, pension, education, and vocational rehabilitation programs will continue through late October. However, in the event of a prolonged shutdown, claims processing and payments in these programs will be suspended when funds are exhausted."

"The fact that the bill the House voted on last week only funded two accounts within the Veterans Administration is disgraceful," says Maine 2nd District Congressman Mike Michaud, the ranking member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee. Michaud says as many as 40 VA employees in Maine were sent home from their jobs as part of the furlough.

On Wednesday, Michaud and other members of the committee will hear testimony on the shutdown from VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, "to talk about what effect the shutdown is having on VAs," Michaud says. "We'll get a more in-depth analysis from the secretary on where he's heading. Hopefully, this will be a short shutdown. But he'll be informing the committee about what's going on."

The day brought one more piece of bad news for Maine vets. The handful of Maine employees with the VA's Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment Services Division have also been furloughed, making it more difficult for those in the program to coordinate on the training and other skills they need to enter the workforce.


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