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Questions and Answers about the Government Shutdown

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Now that the federal government has officially shut down, many are in the dark about what is and is not affected. Here are a few of the most pressing questions that AARP members are asking, and the answers you may be looking for:


Q: How long might this shutdown last?

A:  The 15 shutdowns that have occurred since fiscal year 1977 ranged from three days to 21 days.

Q: Is the entire federal government closed?

A:  Not all of it. By law, essential government services relating to public safety and national security must continue to operate. This means that the military, air traffic controllers, Customs and Border Patrol, the FBI, prison guards and many other U.S. government employees will remain on duty.

But many facilities will close and many services are unavailable. In a five-day shutdown in 1995, 800,000 federal employees were told not to report to work. Several weeks later, 240,000 employees were furloughed in a 21-day shutdown.

Q: Will Social Security benefit payments stop coming?

A:  Social Security recipients will be largely unaffected by a shutdown, according to the administration. Checks for seniors, those with disabilities, and survivors will go out as usual. But Social Security Administration employees may face furloughs.

Q: Will there be any disruption to Social Security?

A:  During the 1995-96 government shutdown, the Social Security Administration stopped processing new applications for benefits, although as the shutdown dragged on, the agency eventually brought in more employees and renewed the process.

It may also be harder to get questions answered and problems dealt with.

Q: What will happen to Medicare?

A:  While there should be no immediate impact on medical services for Medicare enrollees, doctors and hospitals may wait longer for reimbursement.

New applicants had to wait in 1995-96. There should be no immediate impact on enrollees' medical services, health care experts say, though the reimbursement to doctors and hospitals could slow down if the contractors who process claims are deemed inessential. Still, doctors and hospitals aren't paid every day, so unless a shutdown continued for weeks, the effects are likely to be minimal.

The government shutdown may affect Social Security disability recipients who are applying for Medicare.  Under law, Social Security disability recipients must wait two years from the date that their disability benefits were approved to qualify for Medicare.  Delays in scheduling hearings and decisions due to the shutdown could have an impact on these individuals.

Q: How will veterans' benefits be affected?

A:  Veterans Affairs services were curtailed in 1995-96. VA hospitals did not close; medical inpatient care and outpatient emergency care are considered critical services. But other services for veterans were cut back, and some benefit checks were reportedly delayed.

Q: Will post offices close?

A:  No, the postal service is self-funded and would continue to operate.

Q: What government facilities are closed?

A:  National Zoo, parks, museums and monuments have already begun to lock their doors. In 1995-96, 368 national park sites closed, affecting an estimated 7 million visitors. Museums and monuments lost another 2 million visitors. If you've reserved a campsite at a national park for a vacation, you could find it unavailable. Check ahead online or with a phone call.


Q: What about passport applications?

A:  Passports will not be issued, except for in cases involving a medical emergency or national security.

About 200,000 U.S. passport applications went unprocessed by the State Department during the 1995-96 shutdown, along with 30,000 visa requests from foreigners each day.
Q: Will Congress shut down?

A:  No, Congress considers itself essential.


Q.  Will the shutdown keep people from moving to a smaller home or assisted living?

A. Though not specifically targeted to seniors, even a short term government shutdown will halt processing temporarily of FHA mortgage guarantee applications, which will put many pending home purchases and refinancing loans on hold.  Nearly a third (30%) of home loans are FHA backed loans. The same problem would apply to pending HECM reverse loan applications, Veterans Administration “VA” mortgage loans, and Farmers Home Administration rural home loan programs.   Any older Americans in the midst of acquiring or processing a home loan might be delayed.


Q.  How will people in subsidized housing for low income seniors be affected by the shutdown?


A.  While more than half of the residents in all kinds of federally subsidized housing are older persons or persons with disabilities, they will not likely feel any immediate effect of a government shutdown.  Most senior housing is provided through private sponsors or local public agencies and staffed with non-federal government workers who would remain on the job.  A bigger impact would come with a long-term shutdown that would halt future processing of rental assistance and individual housing voucher payments.  Even then, though, project operators and landlords would not likely evict residents.  Instead they are likely to exercise forbearance on the assumption that payments would resume once the political impasse on the budget is over.

The biggest impact on subsidized housing will be on approval and construction of future senior housing projects.


Q.  Will the one-fifth of AARP members who are caregivers be affected by the shutdown?

A.  No current caregiver program applicants and participants should be affected by the government shutdown; new applicants could face delays in processing.

The source for the following question and answers come from a 4/7/11 article from Politico, which quotes Office of Management and Budget Deputy Director Jeff Zients – AARP Government Affairs clarified the potential impact on federally-funded grant programs which are administered at the local level.


Q.  Will implementation of the Affordable Care Act be effected by the shutdown?

A.   No.


Q.  Will the Medicare call center remain open?

A.   Yes, although it would be limited, so wait times may be longer.


Q.  Will the shutdown impact any elements of Medicare Part A?

A.   No. Part A, hospital payments, is paid for by a trust fund unaffected by the shutdown.


Q.  Will the shutdown impact Medicare Parts B and D?

A.   No, as long as a shutdown is limited.


Q.  Will the shutdown affect contractors who reimburse providers?

A.  Contractors will still be able to process claims as long as a shutdown is brief. A longer-term shutdown could lead to some providers to stop seeing patients.


Q.  Will the shutdown impact programs already hampered by sequestration such as Head Start, Meals on Wheels, Medicare-funded cancer treatments, USDA food inspection, public defense, and scientific and medical research?

A.  A shutdown could potentially impact any federally-administered program not deemed as “essential government services.”  Federally-funded programs administered by state and local governments or non-profits would not shutdown, but these local providers may be forced to reduce services should a shutdown last for an extended period.


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