Questions remain on VA budget exemption

If federal budget cuts go into effect automatically next January, Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) programs will be exempt, according to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).

In an April 23 letter to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), OMB made it clear that "all programs administered by the VA, including Veterans’ Medical Care, are exempt from sequestration" under provisions of the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985.

Last year’s failure of the "supercommittee" means that automatic spending cuts, known as sequestration, are scheduled to take effect in January 2013 unless Congress finds other options for federal budget reduction.

OMB also determined that VA’s exemption was unaffected by subsequent provisions in the Statutory Pay-As-You-Go Act of 2010, which failed to include Veterans’ Medical Care in its list of VA accounts exempted from sequestration.

The letter, written by OMB Deputy General Counsel Steven D. Aitken, answers a question raised by The American Legion some time ago: Will VA be protected from sequestration, or will its budget suddenly be cut by billions of dollars?

"It appears on the face of it that this is a victory in ensuring that our nation’s veterans and the VA budget are protected," said Fang A. Wong, National Commander of The American Legion. "However, we are concerned about a reference to VA’s ‘federal administrative expenses’ that are apparently not covered in the exemption. What costs are covered in this category, and how would cuts in these affect VA’s ability to provide quality care?"

With a fiscal 2012 budget of $140.3 billion, VA operates more than 150 VA medical centers, provides disability compensation and pensions to America’s veterans, and maintains hundreds of national cemeteries.

"If any federal agency should be exempt from sequestration, it should be VA," Wong said. "Hundreds of thousands of our men and women who served in Iraq and Afghanistan are also now relying on VA for their health care, in addition to our older veterans from other wars. The administration and members of Congress must make sure that VA’s entire budget is protected from sequestration."

Of the nearly one million Iraq/Afghanistan war veterans who have left active duty since 2002, more than 400,000 (42 percent) have received health care from VA.