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Possible cancellation of VA checks causes concerns for north country veterans

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The potential cancellation of pension checks for millions of veterans and their families because of the budget impasse is raising concerns across the north country.

Craig L. Luther, who served in the Navy for 18 years before retiring, receives a pension through the Department of Veterans Affairs, along with disability benefits for hearing loss stemming from his time in uniform — an important part of his income as he helps his children pay off their student loans and cares for his parents.

“It would totally devastate me and my family at this time,” he said, sitting in the parking lot of the VA clinic on outer Washington Street.

Mr. Luther said that his military service “taught me to deal with inconsistencies in life,” but that the shutdown is changing his view of the government.

“Any confidence that the government will succeed is slowly drifting away,” he said.

The lead medical support assistant at the Conner Troop Medical Clinic on Fort Drum, Mr. Luther also has seen his pay take a hit with six furlough days this summer, and four days without pay last week. Though it appears workers returning this week from furloughs will be paid as usual, he said he did not know for sure when he would get his next paycheck. In the meantime, he still has to travel 45 minutes each way between the post and his family’s home in Harrisville.

About 3.8 million veterans will not receive disability compensation next month if the partial government shutdown continues into late October, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki told lawmakers Wednesday. Some 315,000 veterans and 202,000 surviving spouses and dependents will see pension payments stopped.

Mr. Shinseki spelled out some of the dire consequences of a longer-term shutdown in testimony before the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. Among the short-term consequences, disability claims processing has slowed by an average of about 1,400 claims per day since the shutdown began Oct. 1, stalling the department’s efforts to reduce the backlog of disability claims pending for longer than 125 days.

In all, an extended shutdown would halt more than $6 billion in payments to more than five million beneficiaries.

As he left a doctor’s appointment at the Watertown clinic, Army veteran Scott P. Mulvaney said he and his wife have had to make cuts since this summer, when she was furloughed from her job at Fort Drum’s garrison.

“You don’t waste money on stuff you don’t need,” he said. “You’ve got to tighten it up.”

Mr. Mulvaney said a herniated disk in his neck has made working impossible after a 15-year Army and National Guard career, and his monthly benefits check, reflecting a 100 percent disability rating, is a key part of his family’s finances.

“It totally affects everything,” he said.

Though he is concerned about his own benefits, he said, he was thinking more about the recent news that money for families of fallen service members is being held up because of the shutdown. “They can take my money and give it to them,” Mr. Mulvaney said. “Don’t cheat them.”

On Wednesday afternoon, the nonprofit Fisher House announced it temporarily would facilitate those benefits.

In some areas, such as health care delivery, there have been few adverse effects from the shutdown. In others, such as reducing the claims backlog, the shutdown has compounded problems. Mr. Shinseki noted the backlog has increased by 2,000 since the shutdown began. In the previous 190 days, the backlog had dropped by about 193,000 claims.

He drew comparisons to the last shutdown in 1996, a time of sustained peace. The current shutdown occurs as the war in Afghanistan is in its 13th year and as hundreds of thousands of service members have returned from Iraq. They are enrolling in VA care at higher rates than veterans of previous wars.

“They, along with the veterans of every preceding generation, will be harmed if the shutdown continues,” Mr. Shinseki said.

Not everybody going into the Watertown clinic Wednesday was worried about the potential cuts. Charles B. Compo, who served in the Marine Corps from 1963 to 1967, said he had received disability benefits for Agent Orange exposure for only about four months.

Others, like Army veteran George G. Brewer, said he heard concerns from other veterans, many of whom rely solely on their disability checks.

“It’s going to make things hard for any of us to make it,” Mr. Brewer said.

Mr. Brewer does not receive any VA benefits. After a referral from the Vets Peer-to-Peer Outreach Center, he said he is looking to file a disability claim with the VA.

Mr. Brewer had strong words for lawmakers who had yet to come to a deal to fund the government, saying it was time they stopped quibbling and “do something about it.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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