Vets bracing for benefits hit

Dan Mackenzie talks about what it would be like to not get his veteran’s benefit check, which may not be available in November because of the government shutdown. Mackenzie builds models and assists other vets at the Help Hospitalized Veterans location on North Avenue.

More than 24,000 Western Slope veterans—many of them disabled—may be weeks away from financial trouble if the shutdown of the federal government persists beyond October.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has funds available to ensure claims are processed and payments are made “through late October,” but claims and payments “will be suspended when program funds are exhausted,” the Veterans Benefits Administration said.

The benefits administration’s regional office in Denver, like all regional offices, was closed to the public Tuesday. Specific information about when program funds might become exhausted was not available Wednesday.

In 2012, more than 14,000 Mesa County veterans received a total of $104 million in benefit payments, according to the latest data available from the VA. The payments include checks for disability compensation, education and medical care. 

The announcement means such payments could be delayed starting Nov. 1, the State Director of the Colorado Division of Veterans Affairs said.

Director Bill Conroy said a delay in payment of disability compensation would likely impact the most veterans, though not all Colorado veterans receive benefits.

“One of my gentlemen who is worried about not being able to make his car payment at the end of the month wrote a letter to Volkswagen about the ‘what if’ and Volkswagen said, ‘We perfectly understand what’s going on and we’re going to give you 60 days’ – but that’s just one case,” Conroy said.

“Nobody knows (what’s going to happen). Let’s hope that it doesn’t come to that and they come to sign some kind of agreement to get the government back going again,” he said.

A variety of benefits administration functions have already shut down, including all public contact activities, veterans outreach, predischarge and transition assistance, counseling services and claims appeals, among others, the VA Office of Public and Governmental Affairs said.

An agreement reached Wednesday between the Department of Defense and Fisher House Foundation, a private nonprofit organization, will allow the federal government to continue to provide family members of fallen service members with the full set of benefits they have been promised, including a $100,000 death gratuity payment.

In announcing the agreement, U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said, “I am offended, outraged, and embarrassed that the government shutdown had prevented the Department of Defense from fulfilling this most sacred responsibility in a timely manner.”

“I once again call on Congress to fulfill its basic responsibilities and restore funding for the federal government,” Hagel said.

At least one local veteran shared the secretary’s outrage.

Dan Mackenzie, a U.S. Army veteran who is 40 percent disabled due to bone disease and arthritis, learned of the possible payment delay while volunteering at Help Hospitalized Veterans community center, 1670 N. Ave.

Mackenzie said any delay in the payment of his veteran benefits could significantly impact his health and welfare.

“It would be devastating,” he said. “A person that is on a fixed income, you take away that income, where do they live? Where do they eat? How do they take care of each other?”

The payment Mackenzie counts on each month goes toward the payment of his mortgage, he said.

“How would it be if I went home and told my disabled wife, ‘Oh, sorry we won’t have our money for a house payment until they figure out how they can get it balanced,” he said. “I’m just afraid to tell her.”

“If it wasn’t so pathetically ridiculous, it would be funny, but it’s terrible, the most terrible thing I can think of.

“Every American is going to be affected by their irresponsibility,” Mackenzie said, referring to D.C. lawmakers.


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