VA regional offices shut down

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

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

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

In addition to the loss of those services, the VA may not beable to send out compensation checks to veterans next month. That means aboutfour million veterans, including many in Northeast Arkansas, may lose the onlysource of income they have.

The Veteran's Service Office at the Craighead CountyCourthouse in Jonesboro has fielded hundreds of calls from veterans who areworried 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 biggestconcern has been, will their checks be coming to them? Everyone is very concernedover whether or not they will receive their check next month or if they weregoing to get it the first of October. Of course the October checks came."

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

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

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

"We live here in Northeast Arkansas, and we know what the impactwould 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 significantimpact. The most important thing and what really concerns me as a veteran'sservice 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 sovery conservative, and especially our elderly veterans, they're probablycutting back now on everything that they possibly can to make that money lastas long as it will."

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

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

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

"Most people assume that because we assist them with filingfederal 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 ofphone 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 andpension call centers are still on the job. Veterans who want to file benefitsclaims 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'sService Office at 870-933-4598 to speak to volunteers that can try to answer anyquestions that they might have regarding benefits and payments.

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