MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

Local News

October 1, 2013

Shutdown's local impact extensive

Thousands employed by VA, other federal agencies

Muskogee’s largest employer and an array of other federal agencies braced Monday for a government shutdown while lawmakers in Washington wrangled over continued funding and the Affordable Care Act.

A continuing budget resolution bounced back and forth between the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate as ideological differences regarding the Affordable Care Act continued to divide lawmakers. With funding in question, officials with various federal agencies with Muskogee offices assessed the impact of a shutdown.

Workers at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which employs about 2,500 people in Muskogee, and its clients will see a mixed bag today. Services at Jack C. Montgomery VA Medical Center would remain available regardless of the shutdown, but it is another story for the agency’s benefits arm.

Jacob Nichols, staff assistant with the Veterans Benefits Administration office in Muskogee, said agency officials remained hopeful Monday a shutdown could be averted. Nichols said a contingency plan was in place to “ensure continuance of operation in the event of a shutdown,” but the plan outlines a number of services that would be impacted.

“At this time, benefit payments will not be impacted, and most VA services will continue as scheduled, without interruption,” Nichols said Monday afternoon. “Given the ongoing and developing nature of this situation, the full impact of a government shutdown for our employees cannot be determined at this time.”

The impact of a federal shutdown was clearer for providers and receivers of the agency’s medical services. James R. Floyd, director of the VA Medical Center, said because the agency’s health care arm is funded a year in advance its services would survive a congressional failure to fund the federal government.

“VA strongly believes that a lapse in appropriations should not occur, (and) there is still enough time for Congress to act and fund critical government operations,” Floyd said Monday afternoon. “In the event of a prolonged shutdown, VA will continue to review and update its plan in conjunction with the applicable legal requirements and circumstances.”

A Veterans Affairs field guide indicates “all VA medical facilities and clinics will remain fully operational.” But with regard to the agency’s benefits arm, “VA call centers and hot lines will cease to function.”

Although Veterans Affairs employees make up the lion’s share of federal jobs in Muskogee, administrators at other agencies said the impact of a shutdown would be varied. U.S. Attorney Mark Green said a shutdown would have a direct effect on his office.

“That will leave us shorthanded in some instances — in the civil division certainly shorthanded,” Green said, noting there would be less impact on his criminal division. “It will directly affect us, and their will be an immediate impact on some employees.”

U.S. District Court Clerk Patrick Keaney said just about everybody in his office would be impacted by a failure to fund government operations. Like Green, he said the court’s work involving criminal cases likely would move forward at the expense of civil actions.

Keaney said courthouse officials have been told they would be able to operate as part of the judiciary for 10 days before winding down services.

Administrators with other federal agencies located in Muskogee declined to discuss specifics, referring inquiries to agency officials in Washington or contingency plans that have been put in place.

Plans approved for the U.S. Department of Agriculture provide for employees to report by telephone or in person to receive instructions and furlough information related to any shutdown. Directors and associate directors of local offices would continue to report for five days in the absence of an appropriations bill for further evaluation.

The U.S. Department of Interior’s plans for the Bureau of Indian Affairs indicate law enforcement, firefighting and protective social services would continue despite a shutdown. Among the services that would cease include management and protection of trust assets, oversight of environmental assessments and archaeological clearances, management of oil and gas leases, tribal government related activities, disbursements of tribal funds, and financial assistance to the needy.

With regard to the Social Security Administration, most activities for which annual funding has expired would cease with three exceptions: activities necessary to wind down office operations and to protect life and property, and what is described as the “necessary implication exception.” The third exception includes “activities necessary for disbursing Social Security benefits.”

Reach D.E. Smoot at (918) 684-2901 or dsmoot@muskogeephoenix.com.

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