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Why VA hospitals stay open during a government shutdown

Nearly all VA employees work despite other agencies scaling back.

VA Secretary David Shulkin Visits Bedford Hospital Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

The Department of Veterans Affairs — which runs more than 150 hospitals across the country — will remain open and largely unaffected by the federal government shutdown.

Certain claims processing departments of the VA may experience a slowdown. But its core functions — providing health care services to an estimated 9 million American veterans — are largely exempted from federal rules that require “nonessential” services to scale back or shut entirely.

The VA’s official shutdown plan notes that 96 percent of its 377,000 employees will continue to work through a government shutdown. That’s a significantly higher share than most other federal employees. Only 5 percent of Department of Education employees continue to work through a shutdown, for example, and 50 percent of Health and Human Services workers.

VA hospitals and clinics will remain open in the midst of a government shutdown, with patients able to keep their appointments or seek help in case of an emergency.

The reason the VA continues to operate normally has to do with the criteria the government uses to decide which functions are “essential” during a shutdown. Those criteria instruct agencies to keep running programs that are necessary to protect human life and property.

The VA’s role administering medical care means it easily fits into the category of protecting human life.

There are, however, some smaller functions of the VA that did slow down during the last government shutdown in 2013. The agency stopped processing disability claims during that 16-day closure. A federal report estimated that this “stalled weekly progress in reducing the backlog of veterans’ disability claims, which was previously being reduced at a rate of almost 20,000 claims per week.”

The same report found that certain call lines, meant to help veterans better understand their benefits, closed during the shutdown.

“Services that help veterans understand their benefits — including the education call center, hotlines, and all regional offices outreach activities — were closed to the public during the shutdown, and many veterans lost access to vocational rehabilitation and education counseling services,” the Office of Management and Budget report said.

Read more of Vox’s 2018 government shutdown coverage here.