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Veterans warn their health care could be cut amid debt ceiling fight


Veterans warn their health care could be cut amid debt ceiling fight

May 27, 2023 | 5:10 am ET
By Jon King
Veterans warn their health care could be cut amid debt ceiling fight
V.A. Hospital, Ann Arbor | Susan J. Demas

As the nation prepares to honor U.S. military personnel who have died while serving in the armed forces, a looming debt default could mean millions of veterans, many with injuries suffered on the battlefield, could lose access to outpatient medical care.

If the nation’s $31.4 trillion debt limit isn’t raised before June 5, just days after Monday’s Memorial Day observances, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has warned the nation will run out of money and default on its obligations for the first time in its history.

While negotiations between House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and President Joe Biden have yet to produce a deal, there are increasing worries that health care for veterans will suffer, whatever the outcome.

Veterans warn their health care could be cut amid debt ceiling fight
Matt Barr, a former U.S. Marine gunnery sergeant | Courtesy photo

Matt Barr is a former U.S. Marine gunnery sergeant from Traverse City who served two tours of duty in Iraq, where he fought in the 2004 Battle of Fallujah, and another in Afghanistan, before retiring from the Marine Corps in 2018.

“I get phone calls every single day from my brothers and sisters who served and are struggling and aren’t getting the care that they need, and cutting the funding is not going to help — absolutely not,” said Barr. “I’ve had close friends commit suicide because they weren’t getting the care that they needed. They were turned away because there wasn’t enough staffing, so there are consequences. And unfortunately, a lot of those consequences are the lives of our patriots and heroes that served their country.”

A new report issued by Protect Our Care, a nonprofit that advocates for accessible and affordable health care across the country, says what would amount to a 22% cut for the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) under the House GOP proposal would result in 30 million fewer outpatient visits for veterans across the country.

“That means 187,700 veterans could lose access to outpatient visits in Michigan, leaving them unable to get appointments for care like wellness visits, mental health services, and substance disorder treatment,” states the report.

Republicans have argued that their plan doesn’t specifically cut veterans services, with leaders like U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) accusing Democrats of “lying.” Factcheck.org notes that while the GOP House bill does not mention spending cuts for veterans, the legislation also does not exempt them and the Democratic-led U.S. Senate is not likely to approve them.

While talks have taken place this week, House Republicans have not yet agreed to lift the debt ceiling and Congress has adjourned for Memorial Day weekend.

The prospect of veterans benefits being on the chopping block in the course of debt ceiling negotiations remains alarming to veterans like Barr. 

“I was blown up in Iraq,” he told the Michigan Advance. “I had several blast injuries, so I deal with the TBI [traumatic brain injury], and PTSD [Post-traumatic stress disorder]. Most people who fight in the type of war that we have fought in, or any type of war, will have PTSD.”

Barr said as it stands now, he’s had to wait six months for a mental health appointment while also having to drive from Traverse City to the Veterans Administration (VA) hospital in Ann Arbor to get some of his specialty care appointments. 

If the government ends up defaulting, or a deal to spare a default severely cuts back VA spending, he said the impact will be immediately felt by he and his fellow veterans.

Protect Our Care said that in addition to reducing access to outpatient visits, proposed VA funding cuts would create a nationwide backlog of 134,000 claims while cutting up to $565 million for much-needed upgrades to clinics and hospitals, which would have a significant impact on Michigan’s nearly 582,000 veterans.

“Michigan accounts for more than 2 percent of VA Medical Care expenditures, ranking in the top 15 states for total veteran population, and Michigan veterans stand to lose greatly from GOP funding cuts,” states the report.

Barr said elected officials need to match their words to actions when it comes to honoring the commitment to the nation’s veterans.

“Republicans in Congress who say they have our backs, like our representative here in northern Michigan, Jack Bergman (R-Watersmeet), who voted to cut these health care services, it’s a slap in the face for our veterans,” he said. “That’s the consequences that we’re talking about here. They’re going to be affected. They’re going to struggle even more than they are now.”

Bergman did not return a request for comment. Along with other House GOP members, Bergman has strongly disputed that the proposed plan would institute a 22% cut to the VA, saying instead it “simply returns topline FY24 discretionary spending to FY22 levels.”

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However, an analysis from the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) estimates that capping spending at FY22 levels could result in an average cut of 24% across non-defense programs, depending on which programs are prioritized.

“If defense and veterans’ medical care are spared cuts as House Republicans seek to implement their pledge, then the remaining non-defense areas would face deep cuts, and they include important programs that people and communities across the country depend on,” stated the analysis. 

CBPP said such a scenario would threaten the administration of Medicare and Social Security, something Biden and congressional Democrats have said they will not agree to. Thus, whether a deal is reached or the nation makes a historic default, VA programs could take a hit.

That’s something Barr said is unacceptable.

“Taking care of a veteran shouldn’t be a partisan issue,” he said. “It’s an American promise that we need to make good on. You know, we’re no longer talking about money here. We’re talking about the lives of our brothers and sisters who fought and served our country honorably, who are willing to put everything they have on the line for this country and for us. And so we need to do all that we can to take care of them.”