VA regional offices shut down - KAIT-Jonesboro, AR-News, weather, sports

VA regional offices shut down

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JONESBORO, AR (KAIT) – The partial shutdown of the federal government has claimed another casualty.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) announced Tuesday that it's placing more than 7,000 employees on furlough effective immediately. The move cuts public access to all 56 of its Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) regional offices, including the one in Little Rock.

According to a news release from the American Legion Department of Arkansas, as a result of the furloughs, VBA can no longer conduct personal interviews and hearings, process GI Bill benefits, offer educational or vocational counseling, or provide outreach activities and programs – including VetSuccess on Campus.

In addition to the loss of those services, the VA may not be able to send out compensation checks to veterans next month. That means about four million veterans, including many in Northeast Arkansas, may lose the only source of income they have.

The Veteran's Service Office at the Craighead County Courthouse in Jonesboro has fielded hundreds of calls from veterans who are worried about their own checks.

"Rather than calling for an appointment or to file a claim," Vermalene Smith, the local veteran's service officer, said, "their biggest concern has been, will their checks be coming to them? Everyone is very concerned over whether or not they will receive their check next month or if they were going to get it the first of October. Of course the October checks came."

Smith, however, says the more pressing question now – what about November?

"[The veterans] are very, very concerned over this issue," she said, "because we have some veterans that is their only source of income and so it will make a significant impact upon their families and themselves."

Each month, the VA sends compensation and pension payments to veterans worth about $5 billion. The federal agency, however, confirmed Tuesday that funding for this may run out by the end of the month if the shutdown continues.

"We live here in Northeast Arkansas, and we know what the impact would be upon the people that do not receive their monthly checks," Smith said. "Most people around here live on a 30-day check, so it will have a significant impact. The most important thing and what really concerns me as a veteran's service officer are that our veterans who have to pay for their medication – how will they do it?"

"Knowing our veterans," she added, "so many of them are so very conservative, and especially our elderly veterans, they're probably cutting back now on everything that they possibly can to make that money last as long as it will."

Smith says the only people that can alleviate the growing uncertainty among the country's veterans are the lawmakers in Washington, whom she's optimistic will find a solution soon.

"Our lawmakers need to bring it home to themselves – what if it was happening to them and their families?" she said. "They need to take care of our people. They need to take care of our veterans. That needs to be one of the priorities."

Despite the temporary closure of all regional VA offices, veterans hospitals and medical clinics remain open. The furloughs do not affect the Craighead County Veteran's Service Office either, which many people have assumed was part of the federal agency.

"Most people assume that because we assist them with filing federal claims that we are federal employees, but we are not federal employees," Smith said. "We are not state employees. We are county employees."

"Our office will be happy to provide anyone with a list of phone numbers of the offices who are open for services and those who are not," she added. "Claims will not be processed at this time or any of the appeals."

VA employees who staff the department's compensation and pension call centers are still on the job. Veterans who want to file benefits claims or check on a claim's status can still do so by calling 1-800-827-1000.

Smith says people can also call the Craighead County Veteran's Service Office at 870-933-4598 to speak to volunteers that can try to answer any questions that they might have regarding benefits and payments.

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