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Policy: Budgets & Deficits

Department of Veterans Affairs' $1 million ad campaign makes for bad PR

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Mark Flatten,Watchdog Blog,Barack Obama,Veterans Affairs,Republican Party,Debt Ceiling,Budgets and Deficits,Government Shutdown,Veterans

Common sense would suggest the Department of Veterans Affairs shouldn't spend $1 million for a television advertising promotion in the midst of a government shutdown.

But that's what Veterans Affairs did with a 30-second spot that has been running in prime slots at least since Sept. 9 in the Washington, D.C., area, according to a letter demanding an explanation sent Tuesday by Rep. Jeff Miller, chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs.

The ad appeared during professional football games and Major League Baseball playoffs, according to Miller, in the letter to Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki.

Research by the Florida Republican's legislative staff put the cost of the ad at nearly $1.1 million for the D.C. market alone for the period between Sept. 9 and Oct. 13.

Federal agencies started shutting down Oct. 1, the beginning of the new fiscal year, because of an impasse between House Republicans and President Obama over the 2014 budget and the $16.7 trillion federal debt ceiling.

Veterans Affairs is largely immune from the immediate impact of the shutdown since its health care delivery and benefits processing are considered essential services, and the agency's 2014 health care budget was funded in advance.

That hasn’t stopped the agency from issuing dire warnings. In a statement issued this week, VA officials claimed the loss of mandatory overtime to process benefits claims will stall efforts to eliminate a years-long backlog.

Regular claims processing will continue through October, according to VA, but “in the event of a prolonged shutdown, claims processing and payments in these programs would be suspended when available funding is exhausted.”

None of that is mentioned in the promotional ad. Rather, it features a woman who describes how Veterans Affairs has helped multiple generations of her family.

“Every generation of my family has served, and VA has served us all,” the voiceover says.

Miller gave Shinseki 30 days to answer. Agency officials had no immediate comment when contacted Tuesday.

Shinseki is scheduled to appear before Miller’s committee Wednesday morning to clarify how the government shutdown will affect delivery of Veterans Affairs services.

UPDATE: A statement release Tuesday night by the Department of Veterans Affairs said the advertising time was purchased in early September, and that the Washington area was chosen because of its high concentration of veterans.

“This VA outreach campaign is part of a comprehensive effort to inform veterans of the benefits and services they have earned and deserved, in line with VA’s obligation to conduct outreach to veterans,” the statement reads. “Funds for the advertisements currently running were all obligated prior to the lapse in appropriations.”

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