Shutdown affects various sectors

As a U.S. government shutdown begins because of congressional disagreement on a national spending bill, the question becomes “how long?”

Contingency plans established for federal departments warn of time sensitivity.

A delay in federal Education Department obligations and payments beyond one week would severely curtail the cash flow to school districts, colleges and universities, and to vocational rehabilitation agencies that depend on the department’s funds to support their services, the federal contingency plan states.

As a result of permanent and multi-year appropriations, Pell Grants and federal student loans could continue as normal through a shutdown, but potential cash flow problems increase the longer federal offices are empty.

More than 14 million students receive student aid in the form of grants and loans at more than 6,600 schools through those programs.

Penn State Altoona Financial Aid Director David Pearlman said he doesn’t expect immediate effects of a shutdown to hit student aid.

Pearlman worked in the financial aid office during the 1995 shutdown when congress pieced together a contingency plan similar to the plan currently unfolding.

“My recollection is that things continued with normalcy at that time. Congress found provisions to keep programs open to students. I don’t recall any significant delays,” he said. “As of right now, we are operating as if everything is normal.”

If the shutdown lasts a week or longer, the pinch could be felt, he said. Colleges rely on higher education funds to pay ongoing expenses for the staffs’ operating programs for disadvantaged students seeking to enter and stay in college. Vocational rehabilitation agencies receive 80 percent of the cost of providing services to adult individuals with disabilities from the Department’s program.

The Department of Education contingency plan would furlough more than 90 percent of its total staff for the first week of the shutdown. If the interruption lasts longer than one week, the department would phase in employees only as necessary to conduct other excepted activities “to prevent significant damage,” the plan states.

Federal departments that are feeling immediate effects of the lapse in appropriations include the National Park Service. That department’s contingency plan requires taking steps to close and secure national park facilities and grounds effective immediately to suspend all activities except for those that are essential to respond to emergencies.

Day visitors will be instructed to leave parks immediately as part of “Phase 1 closures.” Visitors utilizing overnight concession accommodations and campgrounds will be notified to make alternate arrangements and depart parks as part of Phase 2.

Wherever possible, park roads will be closed and access will be denied, and staffing will be held to the minimum to perform essential functions.

Among other local services dependent on federal funding, medical services for veterans in Altoona won’t be affected by a lapse in appropriations.

“The Veterans Health Administration is a branch of the VA [U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs] that operates our medical center in Altoona and has an advanced appropriation for fiscal year 2014. This means our hospital and clinics will remain open to take care of veterans,” James E. Van Zandt Medical Center Acting Public Affairs officer Renee Hoover said.

She said she could only speak for the Altoona medical center, but she said there would be no changes to services.

“To my knowledge, our operations will be OK.”