Veterans Health Care and Benefits Become Flash Points in Debate over Debt Ceiling and Spending Cuts

Then U.S. House of Representatives Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy
Then U.S. House of Representatives Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy listens to a strategic brief during a congressional delegation visit, Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base, Romania, April 11, 2022. (U.S. Army Photo by Pfc. Joshua Linfoot, 5th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment.)

The Department of Veterans Affairs is warning that a Republican proposal to cap government spending could slash medical services for veterans and slow benefits payments.

The statement outlining potential consequences of funding cuts was released by the department Friday as the messaging battle heats up ahead of an expected vote in the House this week on a GOP plan to raise the amount of money the nation can borrow to pay its bills in exchange for steep spending cuts.

The GOP proposal does not specifically cut VA funding, but it would place a cap on the overall amount of money the government can spend, leaving it to the Appropriations Committee to determine later which departments would get cuts and which ones wouldn't.

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The VA's list of problems caused by the cap is based on an estimate of a 22% cut, using the assumption that Pentagon funding stays flat while overall government funding levels for 2024 are capped at 2022 levels.

With a group of House Republicans vowing that Pentagon spending would be safe from cuts, the Biden administration has been warning of sharp reductions elsewhere in the budget, including spending for veterans services.

"While the president's budget details a plan to honor our country's sacred obligation to care for America's veterans, their families, caregivers, and survivors, the proposal to cut a broad range of critical programs by 22% would threaten critical services for veterans -- both at VA and across the federal government," the VA said in its Friday statement.

The statement amplifies warnings the administration has previously issued, including in a letter VA Secretary Denis McDonough sent to House Appropriations Committee Democrats last month.

The VA projected the cut would translate into the agency being able to handle 30 million fewer outpatient visits than planned and eliminating 81,000 jobs across the Veterans Health Administration. It would also mean cutting 6,000 staff members from the Veterans Benefits Administration, which in turn would increase the disability claims backlog by an estimated 134,000 claims, the statement said.

Other fallout could include hindering access to telehealth by cutting funding for IT infrastructure, slashing up to $565 million for major construction projects to update aging hospitals, and laying off about 500 staffers in the VA's National Cemetery Administration.

The department argued that broader spending cuts would also affect veterans who rely on government assistance, such as housing vouchers for those at risk of homelessness, food stamps for those suffering from food insecurity, and Health and Human Services mental health programs used by veterans not enrolled in VA care.

Republicans are dismissing the VA warnings, accusing the Biden administration and Democrats of "fearmongering" ahead of the expected House vote on the debt limit bill.

"For months, Democrats have spread false claims that House Republicans would cut veterans' benefits to get our fiscal house in order," House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Mike Bost, R-Ill., said in a statement Friday. "With the introduction of the Limit, Save, Grow Act, the message could not be clearer. This commonsense bill will grow the economy and save American taxpayers money, all while protecting veterans' benefits, Social Security, and Medicare."

The House GOP plan, which is not likely to become law as it faces fierce opposition by Senate Democrats, is Republicans' opening offer to prevent a U.S. default on its debts in the next few months.

Under the bill, the debt ceiling, which is the amount of money the Treasury Department can borrow in order to pay for spending Congress has already approved through the annual appropriations process, would be raised by $1.5 trillion or to March 31, 2024 -- whichever comes first.

In exchange for lifting the debt ceiling, the bill would cap overall 2024 spending to 2022 levels -- about a $130 billion cut -- and limit growth in spending to 1% annually over the next decade.

The bill also includes a number of measures Republicans say will cut costs, including expanding work requirements for food stamps and Medicaid, repealing IRS funding Democrats approved last year, blocking the Biden administration's planned student loan forgiveness, and clawing back unused funding meant to address the COVID-19 pandemic. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., has estimated the bill could save $4.5 trillion over the next decade, though Congress' independent budget scorekeeper has not released its own estimate yet.

It's unclear whether the bill can even pass the House as several Republicans have voiced objections to it over reasons including opposition to raising the debt ceiling under any circumstances and wanting even more stringent work requirements for government assistance programs than are in the bill. With every Democrat expected to vote against the bill, Republicans can lose no more than four GOP votes and still pass it.

Meanwhile, the White House continues to maintain that it will not negotiate with Republicans over the debt ceiling and that any discussion of spending cuts should be separate.

"Every Republican that votes for this bill that Speaker McCarthy and MAGA Republicans have put forth, they're voting for cutting costs on veterans," White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said at a briefing Monday, using the abbreviation for former President Donald Trump's "Make America Great Again" slogan. "That piece of legislation is cruel. And so they need to really make sure that we don't go into default."

-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.

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