On Thursday, many veteran organizations attended a round-table held by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Congressman Walz (MN) and others were in attendance. I was also in attendance along with Patrick Bellon from Veterans For Common Sense.
As the meeting kicked off, veterans questioned how the White House and Congress would handle sequestration, and I want to take a minute to write about what happened next. Leader Pelosi and other legislators guaranteed that it would not impact veteran health care, and then they paused. “We have not yet received guidance on programs like Tricare and VA education benefits.”
That’s right, health care for retirees and active duty personnel using Tricare are at risk. So too veterans using their educational benefits could be hit should sequestration happen. For those who do not know, sequestration is process that calls for across the board cuts to every federal budgetary program.
Legislators have currently exempted VA health care. That’s a good start. But allowing educational benefits to take a hit seems like nothing less than a breach of contract in my mind. We signed up to go to war. Some got injured and will qualify for VA health care. Most did not. Most of us signed up for educational benefits through the GI Bill, either Post 9/11 or something similar. Now, because Congress cannot get its act together, our educational benefits are at risk.
While speaking before the VFW in July, President Obama guaranteed all veterans that sequestration would not impact their benefits. Two days later, Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Shinseki ruined that dream world of chocolate fountains and lollypops by informing Congress that, in fact, sequestration will hit the VA. (Secretary Shinseki works for the President.)
In a later press release, VA clarified that sequestration would impact administrative costs of the VA only. Well I’ll be. If they cut lets say10 percent of the VA, and 15 percent of the VA’s costs are administrative only, it stands to reason that sequestration could cut up to 66 percent of the agency’s administrative staff.
I’m not sure what rock Congress has been hiding under, but the VA is already well understaffed. We have MASSIVE backlogs in disability claims. The GI Bill is still an administrative nightmare for many veterans who cannot get their stipend payments from the VA in a timely manner. It would be great to know how the program will be administered after sequestration happens.
And let’s not forget that Congress has practically excepted the VA from lawsuits like the one Veterans For Common Sense brought to force the VA to treat veterans with PTSD and TBI in a timely manner. Talk about a Catch-22.
Congress wants the VA to be protected from lawsuits that would force the VA to follow the law because legislative history says the VA can be trusted to provide veterans with their constitutionally guaranteed benefits. Meanwhile, on what seems to be a weekly basis, Congress slams the VA for breaching its responsibilities by failing to provide veterans with our benefits in a timely and fair manner. Still, Congress fails to take meaningful action that will fix the longstanding problems within the VA.
NOW, Congress is not sure whether or not the VA should have its administrative budget scaled back? No. VA should not have their already paltry administrative budget scaled back. That will cause a groundswell of problems to the administration of health care, disability benefits, death benefits, educational benefits, and pretty much everything the VA is supposed to do.
Personally, I find it appalling that we cannot get this sorted out ahead of time. We have a government that can predict anything from the weather to where attacks might come from on the battlefield. But, we apparently cannot provide veterans with straight answers on a sequestration threat that we’ve known could take effect 8 months in the future.
This is nothing short than treating veterans issues like a political football. I think I can speak for all of us by saying, “Congress, please do your job. We already did ours.”
While I thank Leader Pelosi and all other legislators who are working hard to fix this system, more can be done. If you cannot sort out your budget, you must allow us to use the courts to remedy wrongs in a timely manner.
Check back on Wednesday to read the full Dispatch from DC, and read about all the details of the trip, including a House Veterans Committee hearing blasting the VA for failures in providing care to veterans living in rural America.