A 22-year-old arrangement between the Departments of Veterans Affairs and Immigration and Customs Enforcement has drawn ire from conservatives in Congress, who claim it puts health care for detained migrants over that of veterans.
But VA officials say it has no impact whatsoever on veterans' services or health care -- and costs the agency nothing.
Since 2002, the VA's Financial Services Center, or FSC, has processed medical claims for an ICE program office that is responsible for providing health care for migrants detained by the border security agency. The VA center facilitates the same work under separate contracts for a variety of other federal offices.
The long-standing agreement with ICE has recently become a political football amid attacks from lawmakers and conservative advocates who have hammered President Joe Biden over a flood of migrants coming across the southern border.
In December, Illinois Republican Rep. Mike Bost, chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, and Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., introduced a bill called the "No VA Resources for Illegal Aliens Act," which would prohibit the VA from using resources to provide health care or process claims for migrants.
In rolling out the proposed legislation, Bost described being "stonewalled" by the Biden administration in obtaining answers on the arrangement, which has been in place since the George W. Bush administration.
"Until I get the response our veterans deserve, I'll use every available tool of my chairmanship to end this practice and put our veterans first," Bost said in a statement.
VA officials said Thursday that, while taxpayer funding is used to process the health care claims, ICE, not the VA, pays for the work.
And, VA Press Secretary Terrence Hayes added, the VA has never provided health care to migrant detainees.
"VA does not provide or fund any health care to ICE detainees. There is a 2002 payment processing agreement, in which ICE pays for the FSC to process payments for ICE-funded health care. This involves no more than 10 employees, is fully paid for by ICE, and has been in place for every administration since 2002," Hayes said in a statement to Military.com.
In a recent statement to The New York Post, Tuberville's office said the Biden administration was "playing word games" and accused the VA of allowing detainees to access its community care network, which provides private health care services to veterans outside VA clinics and medical centers.
"By definition, that means worse options for our veterans," a spokesperson for the senator told The Post.
Under the agreement, however, the ICE Health Service Corps, or IHSC, program office is responsible for authorizing health care services for detainees and obtaining providers to deliver their health care.
"No resources meant for veterans are used as part of this agreement. FSC provides an administrative function for ICE, using ICE funds, that has zero impact on veteran health care or benefits," Hayes said in a statement.
"Again, they provide this claims processing function in return for IHSC paying a fee to FSC. None of the employees have been diverted from other roles, and no resources meant for veterans are used as part of this agreement," Hayes added.
The ICE Health Service Corps provides health care to immigrants in ICE custody, including direct care and coordination of off-site care.
In fiscal 2021, IHSC paid VA $74.7 million to provide medical claims processing and support referral for outside care, according to a 2022 report to the Senate and House Homeland Security Committees.
According to the report, in fiscal 2021, IHSC provided health care directly to 88,000 immigrants and oversaw health care for more than 169,000 in other medical settings. It spent $338.2 million on care for these detainees, including $21.4 million from Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funds.