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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.
For members of the Minnesota National Guard, it has meant the cancellation of drills for a second straight weekend. With few exceptions, none of its 14,000 members will drill again until the shutdown is resolved. While no one is claiming the security of the state — or the nation — is at stake, on a typical month, the Minnesota Guard pays its members $5.25 million. That’s money that won’t be forthcoming.
The monthly stipends often mean making ends meet.
“Even at just an E-1’s [private’s] pay, that’s $150 to$200 a month they are missing,” one Guard member wrote on a Guard Twitter feed announcing the latest drill cancellation. “November’s rent for my fiancé and I will be hard to come up with.”