WASHINGTON — The Pentagon said Wednesday that it would contract with a charity group, the Fisher House, to provide benefits to the families of service members killed in action, and that it would reimburse the group once the government shutdown has ended.
Just before the announcement, the House voted unanimously to restore the benefits, which were not covered by earlier legislation that ensured that active-duty soldiers and civilian support staff members were paid for their work, although many Republicans suggested that the administration had the power to prevent the benefits from lapsing.
Because of the shutdown, the Pentagon said it was unable to pay the death benefits expected by families of the fallen, which include $100,000 to each family; a 12-month basic allowance for housing, usually given in a lump sum to survivors ; and burial benefits.
“In consultation with the Office of Management and Budget, DOD has determined that we can enter into a contract with the Fisher House Foundation to provide these benefits,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said.
Although Pentagon officials insisted Tuesday that they required congressional action to act, they did an about-face Wednesday. “We can’t wait for Congress to fix the problems they’ve created,” said a senior Defense Department official.
‘How dare we not provide these grieving families with the necessary support?’
The Fisher House provides military families with housing near hospitals .
Members of both parties moved quickly to pass the legislation to fund the benefits; the Senate will not take up the legislation now that the Defense Department has acted.
“How dare we not provide these grieving families with the necessary support in their time of need?” said Representative Sanford D. Bishop, Democrat of Georgia, on the House floor. “I’m truly embarrassed that these shutdown shenanigans have impacted these brave soldiers’ families in this way.”
Meanwhile, about 3.8 million veterans will not receive disability compensation next month if the partial shutdown continues into late October, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki told lawmakers Wednesday. Some 315,000 veterans and 202,000 surviving spouses and dependents will see pension payments stopped.
Shinseki spelled out some of the consequences of a longer-term shutdown in testimony before the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. Short term, there’s been a delay in processing claims by an average of about 1,400 per day since the shutdown began Oct. 1. That has stalled the department’s efforts to reduce the backlog of disability claims pending for longer than 125 days.
In all, more than $6 billion in benefits to about 5 million veterans and their families would be halted with an extended shutdown.
In some areas, like health care, there have been few adverse effects. Health care services are funded a year in advance.
Shinseki 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 have returned from Iraq. They are enrolling in VA care at higher rates than previous generations of veterans.
The House has passed legislation that would provide veterans disability, pension, and other benefits if the shutdown is prolonged. But the White House has urged lawmakers not to take a piecemeal approach to continuing government services.
Shinseki made that case as well, saying it’s not the best solution for veterans. He noted that even if the VA were fully funded, some services to veterans would suffer.
He said the Labor Department has largely shut its VETS program, which provides job and counseling services to veterans. And the Housing and Urban Development Department is not issuing vouchers to newly homeless vets.