SALT LAKE CITY — If the government shutdown does not end soon, the secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs warned Congress Wednesday that five million veterans won't get their benefit checks November 1.
In Utah, 30,000 veterans depend on that veteran money every month, so the possibility of not receiving the benefit check is frightening news for frustrated vets like Paul Conway of Ogden.
"If it wasn't for the check, we would lose everything," he said standing at the Purple Heart Memorial in front of the Ogden Veterans Nursing Home.
Conway has been on 100 percent disability for 13 years. He served in the Navy as a diver from 1989 until 2000. He suffered severe injuries diving in toxic water and cannot work. He said to make matters worse, his wife is very ill as well.
"I am distraught, and almost on the verge of tears," he said.
Conway said he doesn't have a plan for what he'll do if the check does not arrive next month. He said around 500 others in his chapter of the Disabled American Veterans also depend on those checks, which range from $100 to $2,000. Veterans with severe disabilities might even receive $3,000.
While those benefits are in jeopardy, and new claims have stalled, all VA medical centers, clinics and health services are open. The George E. Wahlen VA Medical Center is busy serving veterans.
"But, there has been some concern, and the veterans have a lot of questions," said Jill Atwood, director of public affairs for the VA Salt Lake City Health Care System.
All VA medical facilities and clinics will remain fully operational, including:
- Inpatient Care
- Outpatient Care
- Dental Treatment
- Extended Care
- Mental Health Care
- Nursing Home Care
- Special Health Care Services for Women Veterans
- Vet Centers
The Veterans Health Administration is funded through 2014 so veterans health care is not affected.
"It's business as usual for us," Atwood said. "The hospital is open, the clinics are open, appointments are on schedule. Deal or no deal, we still have a mission, and we are here for the veterans."
It's a different story for the Veterans Benefits Administration which processes claims. 555 workers at the Salt Lake Regional Office are furloughed. 390 of them continue to work to serve the veterans without pay, for now.
VA Secretary Eric Shinseki told a House Committee Wednesday morning that veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are enrolling for VA benefits at a higher rate than ever before. He said those veterans, along with the veterans of previous wars, will be harmed if the shutdown continues.
In the last six months, the VBA reduced the backlog of veterans compensation claims by 193,000, a 30% reduction. Shinseki said the backlog reduction has stalled, and increased by 2,000 claims. 1,400 veterans a day are now not receiving decisions on compensation claims.
The government shutdown also affects veterans like Joshua Sepulveda of Ogden who drove to the Veterans Administration Regional Office building Wednesday afternoon in Salt Lake only to discover he was locked out.
"It's just one more kick in the gut by our representatives," Sepulveda said.
Sepulveda, who served in Afghanistan with the Utah National Guard, is in the process of filing for a medical retirement. He started his claim in 2009. He said it got lost in the backlog, and now it's stalled with the government shutdown.
He said he's counting on the compensation for his family of seven, and he's mad at lawmakers.
"They say that they are there for the vets," Sepulveda said. "But, when it comes down to it, they leave us high and dry."
"It can affect their ability to pay their mortgage, and pay their other bills. It has a big impact," said Terry Schow, American Legion National Executive Committeeman.
Schow is an ardent advocate for Utah veterans and a disabled veteran himself. However, he said he can get by until Congress resolves the issue, while many others in the state cannot.
"It bothers me more for the veterans I know who are in severe need," Schow said.
Schow thinks this issue, and other events that have irked our veterans over the past week may help end the impasse in Washington.
"Come November 1, those checks are going to go out," he said. "I think the pain for Congress would be too much."
Veterans service organizations, like the American Legion and the Disabled Veterans Association, which are not federally funded, are open. Some of those chapters are located in the closed regional building, and individuals are asked to call ahead before going.