Despite shutdown, WIC works, and veterans, and others, still getting benefits

Despite the federal government shutdown, Connecticut veterans will still get their checks, poor women will still get their WIC payments and most preschoolers will still get to go to Headstart -- at least for now.

Connecticut leaders of several federally funded programs said they have been inundated with phone calls all week from veterans and others confused and anxious about whether their benefits and programs will continue.

“We were getting hundreds of phone calls on the first day,” said Linda Schwartz, commissioner of the state Department of Veterans Affairs. “They were all worried about what's going to happen, saying, ‘What am I going to do if I don’t get my check,’“ she said.

Schwartz sought to correct some media reports and assure the 22,000 veterans affected that they will continue to get their pension and disability checks at least until the end of October.

They also sought to assure the 52,000 veterans who use VA health care that VA medical facilities and clinics will remain open, and veterans can still get their prescriptions filled.

Schwartz is not certain what will happen if the shutdown continues into November.

“If the shutdown goes beyond the end of the month, other plans will have to be developed,” she said.

Veterans with questions can call the department at 1-866-928-8387 or check the department’s website to see what services are and are not affected by the shutdown.

Keeping WIC open

Similarly, there has been a lot of confusion over the WIC program, which helps poor women with young children buy food.

Even though it is federally funded, the Women, Infants and Children program will remain open, at least for now, because the state has enough federal money to keep it running through the end of the month.

The program provides nutrition education and counseling, as well as vouchers for certain foods, including milk, eggs, bread and baby formula, to 58,000 clients in Connecticut.

Katherine S. Yacavone, president and CEO of Bridgeport’s Southwest Community Health Center, which operates a WIC office, said that there’s been some confusion among stores that usually accept WIC vouchers.

“Some vendors have said, ‘Oh, we don’t want to cash them,’ for fear they won’t be valid,” Yacavone said.

Southwest’s WIC office has been calling stores to let them know that the vouchers will be honored. Yacavone said the state has a vendor representative who is doing the same thing.

Clients have also called to ask whether the program is open, Yacavone said.

“There’s just so much frenzy about anything right now that’s federally funded, including the health centers, and we’re open,” she said. “It’s natural that people are getting, I think, very scared and conflicting information. But as of now, the program is fully operational as it was on Sept. 30.”

Adding to the confusion, the guidance the state has gotten from the federal government about the program's future has changed. In a memo Tuesday, Public Health Commissioner Dr. Jewel Mullen wrote that the state had $6 million in federal money that could be used to fund the food benefits through December.

But on Thursday, DPH spokesman William Gerrish said the guidance the department received from the U.S. Department of Agriculture had changed, and that the state could only say it would be able to fund the program -- both the vouchers and staff -- through the end of October.

“We want to underscore that this is a very fluid situation. It’s changing all the time,” Gerrish said. “Our guidance right now is that the program is still operating and people should, if they’re WIC clients, they should continue to take advantage of those services, and we’ll continue to update them and continue to get as much information as possible as we go forward.”

Head Start open everywhere but Bridgeport

Currently the federally funded Head Start programs for preschoolers are open everywhere in Connecticut but in Bridgeport.

The funding is tied to when federal payments are scheduled. So far, the 13 Bridgeport Head Start facilities  -- serving a total of 1,019 children -- have been closed because they had been scheduled to receive payment from the federal government Oct. 1, but the shutdown stopped that from happening. State and federal officials were unable to provide details about whether any other Connecticut Head Start centers will be affected for the next payment, scheduled for Nov. 1.

The Administration for Children for Families - the federal agency which funds Head Start – won’t answer questions about Head Start until the shutdown is over.

"Requests will be suspended during the lapse in appropriations," the office responded to a request from The Mirror for information.

Staff Reporter Jacqueline Rabe Thomas contributed to this report.

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