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Local residents are struggling to deal with shutdown of most federal government functions

October 1, 2013

A stalemate in Congress that caused a government shutdown Tuesday for the first time in 17 years came as no surprise for Woonsocket auto mechanic Paul Morin.

“I stayed up and watched the entire thing and, personally, I’m with the Republicans on this one because I believe Obamacare will hurt the country,” Morin says. “Of course I’m upset that we have the first government shutdown in nearly two decades, but I’m more upset the Democrats didn’t do more to negotiate with the Republicans to avert this.”

The U.S. government partially shut down Tuesday for the first time in 17 years in a standoff between President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans over healthcare reforms. Republicans in the House of Representatives wanted to block Obama's signature Affordable Care Act by tying continued government funding to measures that would undermine it. But the Democratic-controlled Senate repeatedly rejected those efforts.

“It’s all the fault of the Republicans,” argued Jeanette F., a Woonsocket resident who requested her last name not be used because her son works for the city. “The Republicans have always given Democratic presidents a hard time, but what they’ve been doing to Obama is nothing like I’ve ever seen before. I welcome Obamacare. I think it’s a good thing because it will make health care affordable.”
The federal government shutdown will impact local veterans who could see a possible disruption in payments, but only if the shutdown is extended for any significant length of time.

Most veteran services offered through the Department of Veterans Affairs will continue because lawmakers approve money one year in advance for the VA’s health programs. Veterans will still be able to visit hospitals for inpatient care, get mental health counseling at vet centers or get prescriptions filled at VA health clinics.

Operators will still staff the crisis hotline and claims workers will still process payments to cover disability and pension benefits.

The Providence Veterans Affairs Medical Center says it is fully operational despite the shutdown of the federal government. Medical Center funds are appropriated through Sept. 30, 2014. This means that the hospital, its clinics, and community-based outpatient clinics will remain open without any interruption of clinical services.

“The VA has funds available to ensure claims processing and payments in the compensation, pension, education, and vocational rehabilitation programs will continue through late October,” said Leslie Pierson, health system specialist to the chief of staff and acting public affairs officer for the Department of Veterans Affairs in Providence.

“However, in the event of a prolonged shutdown, claims processing and payments in these programs will be suspended when funds are exhausted,” she said.

As for any immediate impact, Pierson said those veterans appealing the denial of disability benefits to the Board of Veterans Appeals will have to wait longer for a decision because the board will not issue any decisions during a shutdown.

The Veterans Administration’s regional office in Providence serves a potential clientele of 166,600 veterans, including approximately 91,161 in Rhode Island and 75,439 in Southeastern Massachusetts.

“It is the mission of the Providence VA Medical Center to honor America's veterans by providing exceptional health care that improves their health and well-being. A key part of fulfilling this mission is providing uninterrupted continuity of care,” Pierson said.

The shutdown will have no immediate impact on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as the Food Stamp Program. Fred Sneesby, spokesman for the R.I. Department of Human Services, says SNAP beneficiaries will get their October benefits.
“The United States Department of Agriculture will keep us informed of any changes, especially if the shutdown is prolonged, but for now benefits will continue to be distributed,” he said.

As for the Head Start program, which helps low-income students gain access to developmental services to prepare them for school, Sneesby said all local Head Start programs are operating, but there could be interruptions should the shutdown last three weeks or more.

Meals On Wheels Association of America President and CEO Ellie Hollander said Tuesday that the inaction and failure of Congress to come up with a passable budget resolution has added “insult to injury” because senior nutrition programs are already dealing with devastating cuts due to sequestration, funding that has never kept up with inflation, increased food and transportation costs, and increased need.

“Should a shutdown persist for any considerable length of time, local Meals on Wheels programs that rely on government funding could experience a delay in reimbursements for meals and services delivered,” she said. “Facing such funding uncertainty, programs could be forced to suspend meal services, create or expand waiting lists for meals, cut the number of meals or days they serve, and reduce delivery days.”

The Meals on Wheels of Rhode Island’s home-delivered meal program began more than 40 years ago and is the only nonprofit meal delivery program serving the entire state of Rhode Island. Currently, this program provides approximately up to five noontime meals per week to approximately 1,500 qualified individuals.

The congregate meal program provides hot, nutritious meals to seniors throughout Providence and Pawtucket. The program has seven dining sites in various locations throughout the city of Providence.

“Our organization believes that reinstating full federal funding for programs such as Meals on Wheels and ending sequestration is not only the right thing to do from both a moral and fiscal perspective, but that it is a no-brainer,” Hollander said. “We can either invest a little in senior nutrition programs now, or spend a lot more on the negative consequences that will develop for health care spending later.”

(Follow Joseph Fitzgerald on Twitter at jofitz7)

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