Those who rely on the Department of Veterans Affairs for medical care, disability benefits or educational assistance will be spared whatever pain eventually comes from sequestration because the agency is exempt from the automatic budget reductions, the chairman of the House veterans committee said today.
Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said he has pressed VA officials for a year to get a straight answer whether President Obama would claim veterans would be hurt by the sequestration that began this month.
Miller finally got a clear concession that the VA's budget is totally exempt from the automatic cuts last December, so any claims now that veterans programs will be harmed are pure hype, he told The Washington Examiner today.
"The one thing I wanted to make sure of was that veterans weren't used as political pawns in the discourse," Miller said. "We clearly said VA was exempt. For a year I could not get the White House nor the VA to say 'yes, in fact that's the way we interpret the law.'"
The ambiguity is rooted in two conflicting laws. One passed in 1985 allowed a 2 percent cut to veterans' health care in a sequestration while the other, passed in 2010, exempted the VA from any cuts.
In November 2011, Miller could not get a clear answer from W. Todd Grams, VA's chief financial officer. White House lawyers were researching the issue, he said.
That triggered a series of letters from Miller to the VA and the White House Office of Management and Budget. OMB responded in June 2012 that all programs administered by VA were exempt from sequestration, but the agency could face cuts in undefined "administrative expenses."
VA Secretary Eric Shinseki repeated that assertion in congressional testimony last July.
"VA is exempt from sequestration except for administrative costs," Shinseki said. "I don't have a definition of administrative costs right now."
Miller finally got the answer he wanted in December, when Shinseki sent a letter affirming the entire VA budget, including administrative expenses, are exempt from automatic cuts.
Miller said he is concerned the White House chose to "slow roll" the answer because threats to popular veterans programs would give President Obama leverage in budget negotiations.
VA officials could not be reached today for comment.
While the VA is completely exempt from sequestration, veterans could see some disruptions. For instance, veterans filing disability claims must get their military and medical records from the Department of Defense, which is facing automatic reductions.
Pentagon officials blamed the looming sequestration for a decision not to link electronic health records with the VA during a house veterans committee hearing last month.
Miller said agencies can minimize those disruptions by making veterans a priority.
"I don't think veterans' funding should ever be allowed to be used as political leverage," Miller said.
Mark Flatten is a member of The Washington Examiner's Watchdog investigative reporting team. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org