Pentagon Says Foundation to Pay Death Benefits

3:16 PM, Oct 9, 2013   |    comments
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Gregg Zoroya, Susan Davis and Aamer Madhani, USA TODAY

The Pentagon reached an agreement Wednesday with the non-profit Fisher House Foundation to restore death benefits for military families that have been delayed because of the ongoing government shutdown.

The announcement came as Congress and the Obama administration scrambled to fill a gap in benefits created by the impasse.

"The veterans have done their job for the country," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said. "It's time for Congress to do their job."

The House voted 425-0 to restore a $100,000 death gratuity to family and other lost benefits, but prospects for the same action in the Senate remained unclear.

The actions came as Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel flew to Dover AIr Force Base, Del., on Wednesday to meet, before television cameras, the remains of four soldiers killed Sunday in a roadside bomb blast in Afghanistan.

Along with a 19-year-old Marine who died Saturday, the five are among the first whose families will not receive a $100,000 death gratuity along with other expenses unless funding is restored or the government reopened.

"I am offended, outraged and embarrassed that the government shutdown had prevented the Department of Defense from fulfilling this sacred responsibility in a timely manner," Hagel said Wednesday in announcing the contract with Fisher House.

He said the foundation, best known for building family residences at military hospitals, will be reimbursed by the Pentagon after the shutdown ends.

As he made the announcement, Congress worked to restore the delayed payments, which have become a symbol of government paralyzed by opposing political views, unable to provide earned benefits even for those who have given their lives for their country.

Even as the death benefits issue was resolved, a broader threat continues. A total of $6.25 billion in veterans benefits could be delayed to more than 5 million veterans, troops, families and children of deceased military members if the shutdown continues through the end of October, according to Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki.

"I just didn't think you would allow this to happen," Shinseki told members of Congress during testimony Wednesday. "This is not a game."

As Congress grapples with how to keep earned benefits flowing to those who have served in uniform, events Wednesday became a mix of political theater, recriminations and a litany of dire consequences should the shutdown continue.

Shinseki, a retired four-star general who took the VA helm in 2009, said the budget standoff comes as younger veterans are suffering complex health and behavioral issues after more than a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Members of this latest generation of veterans are enrolling in VA at higher rates than ever before," Shinseki testified. "They along with the veterans of every preceding generation will be harmed if the shutdown continues."

As the shutdown continues, House Republicans have passed legislation funding individual government departments or specific needs while Democrats argue that the full government should be re-opened.

"What's happening now is the House of Representatives–which refuses to reopen the government–is scurrying to pass a little bill to take care of these families," Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said. "It isn't nearly enough, because the embarrassment of this government shutdown goes beyond this grievous situation with these bereaving families."

According to Durbin, 17 service members have died since the shutdown began, including five over the weekend.

House Republicans have approved piecemeal funding bills to reopen popular government programs and facilities, but only one measure -- to ensure that the U.S. military is paid during the shutdown -- has been approved by the Senate and signed by President Obama.

House Republicans in an emotional floor debate blamed the Obama administration for the lapse in death benefits . "This is a disgrace. An intentional policy of pain," said Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., a veteran.

"They broke a sacred trust with our U.S. men and women who are on the front lines," said Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., also a veteran.

House Democrats joined with Republicans in support of the measure, but Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Ind., the top Democrat on the Defense Appropriations panel, called on the House to reopen the entire federal government.

Shinseki said that 70% of the VA -- devoted to providing veterans with health care --remains open because of advanced funding approval. But departments dealing with benefits and the operation of national cemeteries remain unfunded and money is running out.

Some 7,800 benefits workers were placed on furlough this week and 13,000 more will be sent home later this month, leaving a skeleton crew of about 1,100, if government operations are not fully restored, Shinseki testified.

At that point, he said, monthly checks for compensation, pension, vocational rehabilitation, education and other benefits might not go out as scheduled Nov. 1.

That could affect the 5.18 million veterans, service members, orphaned children and spouses of troops who have lost their lives, he said.

Senate Chaplain Barry Black, a retired Navy admiral, used his daily opening prayer in the Senate chamber to criticize lawmakers for the lapse in death benefits, underscoring the emotional tenor of the debate. "Lord, when our federal shutdown delays payments of death benefits to the families of children dying on far away battlefields, it's time for our lawmakers to say enough is enough."

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