The Department of Veterans Affairs could become collateral damage in the battle between the White House and Republicans in the House of Representatives over raising the nation’s debt ceiling.
The U.S. government faces the prospect of economic turmoil if it fails to reach an agreement on raising the amount of money that it can borrow to pay its bills. The federal government is expected to exhaust its borrowing ability in June.
In 2011, a similar disagreement over the debt ceiling resulted in sequestration and budget cuts for defense spending that forced the military branches to get rid of service members and slash funding for training and spare parts, contributing to a rise in fatal aircraft crashes.
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has proposed raising the debt ceiling by $1.5 trillion in return for reducing most discretionary spending – which must be approved by Congress each year – to fiscal 2022 levels.
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Shalanda Young, director of the Office of Management and Budget, has released a statement saying Republicans plan to avoid reducing defense spending, so the Department of Veterans Affairs and other government agencies would face steeper budget cuts to overall fiscal 2022 levels.
In short, Speaker McCarthy’s plan to raise the debt ceiling would cut the VA’s budget by 22% next fiscal year, Young said. That would force the Veterans Health Administration to eliminate 81,000 jobs, meaning that veterans would be unable to make appointments for wellness visits, cancer screenings, mental health services, substance abuse disorder treatment, and other healthcare services, according to Young. These cuts would translate into 30 million fewer veteran outpatient visits.
The VA has also issued a statement saying that cutting the department’s budget by 22% would limit the VA’s ability to provide telehealth services by reducing funding for the necessary information technology and support.
Speaker McCarthy’s proposal to raise the debt ceiling would also force the Veterans Benefits Administration to cut its staff by more than 6,000 people, and that would worsen the wait time for benefits by adding an estimated 134,000 claims to the disability claims backlog, the VA’s statement says.
These cuts to the Veterans Benefits Administration would come at a time when the VA is already seeing an increase in disability claims filed due to the passage of the PACT Act, which expands healthcare to veterans suffering from cancer and other ailments as a result of being exposed to toxic substances from burn pits and other sources along with Vietnam Veterans who are sick because they were exposed to Agent Orange, said Carrie Farmer, of the RAND Corporation.
“Reducing VBA [Veterans Benefits Administration] staff would mean fewer people available to process disability claims, and surely this would translate into veterans waiting even longer for their benefits,” said Farmer, project director of RAND’s Veteran’s Choice Act Assessment.
Meanwhile, costs for the VA’s Community Care program, which pays for veterans to get treatment in the private sector when the VA cannot provide the healthcare that they need, have been increasing, Framer said. It is not clear how the VA could continue to meet demand for the program with a reduced budget.
The VA would also have to cut up to $565 million on major construction projects under the spending cuts proposed by McCarthy. That would limit upgrades to VA hospitals – which are on average nearly 60 years old – and other medical facilities, according to the department’s statement.
Additionally, the VA National Cemetery Administration would have to cut roughly 500 people, limiting the department’s ability to maintain cemeteries and delaying the opening of five new national cemeteries, the statement says.
A spokeswoman for Speaker McCarthy referred questions about how his debt ceiling proposal would affect the VA to his April 17 remarks at the New York Stock Exchange: “Don’t believe anyone who says these are draconian limits. They’re the same spending levels we operated under just last [December]. And we’ll make sure that our veterans and our service members are taken care of.”
Rep. Mike Bost (R-Ill.), chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, has accused Democrats of spreading “false claims” that McCarthy’s proposed “Limit, Save, Grow, Act” would hurt veterans.
“This commonsense bill will grow the economy and save American taxpayers money, all while protecting veterans’ benefits, Social Security, and Medicare,” Bost said in an April 21 statement. “Republicans have always prioritized veterans in our spending to ensure veterans have access to the care, benefits, and services they have earned, and as the Chairman of this Committee, that is my number one priority. Anyone who questions our commitment to the men and women who have served should find new talking points.”
But to Mary Kaszynski, director of government relations at VoteVets, a liberal veterans group, the cuts to the VA that would result from McCarthy’s proposal to raise the debt ceiling are both “outrageous” and unsurprising considering Republican opposition to the PACT ACT last year over concerns about how the law would be funded.
Kaszynski also noted that McCarthy’s proposal also calls for recouping $2 billion in unobligated funding from the American Rescue Plan that was allocated to the VA last year.
“It remains to be seen if this precise proposal passes the House,” Kaszynski told Task & Purpose on Monday. “I wouldn’t be surprised if any budget that passes the House with the majority of Republicans does include cuts to the VA, which would be totally unacceptable to VoteVets and the veterans’ community.”
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