Vets, military find ways to cope while shut out by shutdown

  • Article by: MARK BRUNSWICK , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 11, 2013 - 5:06 AM

But interruption of VA checks, pension pay and tuition aid is a mounting concern.

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The visitor parking lot at the Whipple Federal Building at Fort Snelling was nearly vacant on Thursday morning, reflecting the shutdown of federal services. Normally, the lot would be full.

Photo: MARK BRUNSWICK • mbrunswick@startribune.com,

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If a vet­er­an want­ed to go over a dis­a­bil­i­ty claim at lunch­time on Thurs­day, it would have to wait un­til af­ter yoga class.

A fed­er­al gov­ern­ment shut­down has locked out the general pub­lic at the Bish­op Henry Whip­ple Federal Building at Fort Snel­ling. Because of the shut­down, vet­er­ans or­gan­i­za­tions such as the Dis­a­bled A­mer­i­can Veterans have had to make do with al­ter­na­tive methods to serve their cli­ents.

For Mike Medhaug, who u­su­al­ly han­dles claims for the Min­ne­so­ta DAV in the fed­er­al build­ing, that now means a make­shift desk in the cor­ner of an a­tri­um at the near­by Min­ne­ap­olis VA Medical Center, which re­mains open through the shut­down.

With nurses in sur­gi­cal scrubs going over charts near­by and the reg­u­lar­ly sched­uled Thurs­day yoga class with Dor­is clear­ing out the room be­tween 11:45 a.m. and 12:30 p.m., it may not be i­de­al. But Medhaug per­se­veres.

Across the coun­try, as many as 95 percent of VA em­ploy­ees are eith­er full­y fund­ed or re­quired to per­form other func­tions. But as the shut­down stretch­es past its se­cond week, some of the more vis­i­ble ex­am­ples of its im­pact could be seen on the state’s 369,000 veterans. In Min­ne­so­ta, vet­er­ans re­ceive $863 mil­lion a year in pensions and com­pen­sa­tion, $865 mil­lion a year in med­i­cal care and $133 mil­lion a year in ed­u­ca­tion­al ben­efits.

All of it is now threat­ened.

“They are still tak­ing new claims, peo­ple still are get­ting health care, but as you would think, it’s not op­er­at­ing as ef­fi­cient­ly as it may have when it was full­y staffed,” said Milt Schoen, Hennepin County’s di­rec­tor of vet­er­ans ser­vices. “The big is­sue is at the first of the month do they have mon­ey to pay So­cial Security checks, VA checks? We’ve been try­ing not to cre­ate any more anx­i­e­ty amongst people as pos­si­ble. The anx­i­e­ty is there.”

U.S. Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki warned Congress this week that if the gov­ern­ment shutdown con­tinues into late Oc­to­ber, compensation pay­ments to more than 3.8 mil­lion vet­er­ans will not be made in No­vem­ber. Pen­sion pay­ments will also stop for al­most 315,000 low-in­come vet­er­ans.

“I will not be able to pay all these bene­fi­ciar­ies,” Shin­seki told the House Veterans Affairs Committee on Wednes­day. “I will not be send­ing checks out.”

Public access closed

All pub­lic ac­cess to the VA’s 56 re­gion­al of­fices was sus­pend­ed Tues­day for lack of funds, the VA said. The vis­i­tor park­ing lot at the Whip­ple Federal Building at midmorning Thurs­day had three cars in it. U­su­al­ly it is filled.

Organizations like the DAV are ad­apt­ing. On a typi­cal day, Medhaug, him­self a vet­er­an with 20 years’ ac­tive duty, will see a doz­en walk-ins. Since the shut­down, he said, that has dwin­dled to a cou­ple a day. As the shut­down con­tinues, DAV will use a mo­bile claims of­fice and oth­er re­sources to reach out, even if it means plop­ping the mo­bile of­fice in a park­ing lot of a co­op­er­at­ing shop­ping mall.

“The long­er it goes on, the more cre­ative we’ll be­come,” Medhaug said.

Tuition and rent money

On Min­ne­so­ta col­lege cam­puses, vet­er­ans using the GI Bill and oth­er fed­er­al ed­u­ca­tion ben­efits are in­creas­ing­ly wor­ried.

“The gov­ern­ment shut­down is caus­ing a lot of anx­i­e­ty and un­cer­tain­ty for stu­dent vet­er­ans,” said Bruce Holzschuh, co­or­di­na­tor of vet­er­ans and mil­i­tar­y stu­dent ser­vices at Metropolitan State University, which has around 1,600 vet­er­ans, serv­ice mem­bers and ­militar­y fam­i­ly mem­bers ad­mit­ted. A­bout 450 are re­ceiv­ing eith­er or both of VA and fed­er­al tu­i­tion as­sist­ance ed­u­ca­tion­al ben­efits.

As of now, the tu­i­tion as­sist­ance will not be fund­ed, af­fect­ing stu­dents for the spring se­mes­ter who are still ser­ving. Holzschuh said he also is start­ing to hear from vet­er­ans who have yet to re­ceive an Oc­to­ber hous­ing sti­pend.

“This has a di­rect and neg­a­tive im­pact on the stu­dent vet­er­an’s a­bil­i­ty to con­cen­trate and suc­ceed ac­a­dem­i­cal­ly,” he said.

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