Billings Gazette: Tester warns against cuts to veterans health coverage

by Tom Lutey

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester is warning that funds committed to helping veterans exposed to toxic burn pits could be lost to House Republican demands of spending cuts in exchange for their votes to raise the debt ceiling.

Tester, chairman of the Senate Veteran’s Affairs Committee, raised the issue this week during a review of the Pres. Joe Biden’s 2024 budget for the Veterans Administration. Veterans for the first time received health coverage for illnesses stemming for exposure to toxic burn pits and Agent Orange in 2022 when Congress passed the PACT ACT, or Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act of 2022.

“We send folks off to war. We put it on the credit card. They come back and we make excuses not to fund their benefits. In Montana they say that that is something that comes out of the backside of a bull,” Tester said in opening remarks. “Anyway, after finally making good on our long overdue pledge to address these costs of war for toxic exposed veterans, our next step cannot be to immediately renege on that pledge. I’m also concerned with the House efforts to rescind $1.8 billion we already appropriated for delivering veteran’s health care, reimbursing community care providers and improving health care facilities.”

Meanwhile, Republicans rolled out bills showing some commitment to veterans’ care.

Montana’s Republican Reps. Ryan Zinke and Matt Rosendale partnered with Sen. Steve Daines on a bill to expand veteran’s access to community health care, meaning local private services not associated with the VA. Community care is popular in a state where to drive to a VA clinic or hospital can be hours long.

A House Appropriations bill to increase Veterans Affairs spending by $18 billion dropped Tuesday. The Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies Bill also cut $14.7 billion from money available to treat toxic exposure.

Appropriations Chairwoman Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, said funding was adequate during a livestreamed meeting on the bill.

“This bill before us fully and responsibly, funds veteran’s health care. It will ensure that our veterans get the medical treatment they certainly deserve,” Granger said.

Cuts to veterans’ benefits were quickly singled out by Biden administration two weeks ago when House Republicans first proposed freezing government spending at 2022 levels through 2024. Without the freeze, House Republicans indicated they won’t vote to keep the United States from defaulting on in its debts.

The U.S. Treasury has warned that by June 1, it won’t have the borrowing authority to keep paying Social Security and Medicare benefits, as well as military salaries, tax refunds and interest on the national debt. Congress will have to increase that authority, known as raising the debt ceiling, so the Treasury can continue to meet those existing legal obligations.

Republicans are using the crisis in an attempt to claw back spending they lacked the votes to prevent in 2022 and 2021.

Toxic exposure coverage was one of those 2022 bills that Republicans struggled over. Republicans initially supported the bill, then lined up against the bill last July after Sen. Patrick Toomey, a Pennsylvania Republican, objected to creating a mandatory fund addressing toxic exposure ailments and other VA items.

That mandatory designation meant Congress had to fund the account. The PACT Act committed about $28 billion a year for 10 years to veterans’ health issues related to burn pits and Agent Orange.

Among Republicans voting no was Montana Sen. Steve Daines. Senate Democrats socialized a video of Daines and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz fist bumping as the procedural vote failed.

The PACT Act was a major expansion in veterans’ health care bill proposed by Tester and Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas. The bill made health care available for toxic exposure, not only for the veterans of the Iraq, Afghanistan and Persian Gulf wars, but also veterans exposed in Vietnam to Agent Orange. Some health problems from the jungle defoliant used in Vietnam had remained uncovered 47 years after the war ended.

Tester estimated that the number of Montana veterans exposed to toxic substances is as high as 60,000, or roughly two-thirds of the veterans living in the state today. Montana’s veterans make up 10.6% of the state population, third highest in the nation as a percentage. The Department of Defense estimates there are 3.5 million veterans nationally who have been exposed to burn pits.

The bill eventually passed. With several Republicans, including Daines, changing their votes.

Veterans Administration Secretary Denis McDonough told senators Wednesday that a half million veterans have applied for treatment of toxic exposure health problems since the PACT Act became law 10 months ago. The Department of Veterans Affairs has fully processed about half of those claims, with nearly 80% veterans who applied qualifying for care. The Veterans Administration has tested 3.3 million veterans for signs of toxic exposure, McDonough said.

The growth in the budget request to cover toxic exposure care has been alarming, Moran said. The Biden administration requested $20 billion in its 2024 budget request for the program. Before the PACT Act passed, the programs weren’t expected to hit the $20 billion mark until 2036.

Moran raised the issue of mandatory programming in the Biden budget, which he isn’t comfortable with.

“Nearly 70% of the federal spending is on autopilot or what is known as mandatory programming. This passive approach to the federal budget is what got us in this deficit mess in the first place,” Moran said. “Veterans are not insulated from rising inflation and slowed economic growth caused by out-of-control spending.”

Wednesday in the House, Granger pointed out that the Veterans Administration spending approved by Republicans in Appropriations didn’t use mandatory programming, the same stipulation used by Toomey to lead Senate Republicans in revolt in 2022.

“I also reject the administration’s proposal to shift resources to the mandatory side. This bill covers those costs in the annual discretionary budgets,” Granger said.

There are ever-simmering debates about annual discretionary funding versus mandatory programming in congressional budget discussions. Annual discretionary funding proponents typically argue that the money is there to cover expenses for one year. Advocates of mandatory funding, and government agencies, argue that the uncertainty created annual discretionary spending makes it difficult to build programs, such as health services for toxic exposure veterans, for the long haul.

Tester warns against cuts to veterans health coverage (