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Sunday, May 25, 2014

PolitiFact: Vanden Heuvel says Congress ‘slashed funding for veterans’ benefits’ in recent years

Allegations about secret wait lists and delays for veterans seeking care at VA facilities around the country have begun to reverberate in Washington.

The controversy stemmed from a variety of reports about lengthy delays that may have contributed to veterans’ deaths, compounded by allegations of efforts to cover up the delays at
several Veterans Affairs facilities, including one in Phoenix. ...

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Allegations about secret wait lists and delays for veterans seeking care at VA facilities around the country have begun to reverberate in Washington.

The controversy stemmed from a variety of reports about lengthy delays that may have contributed to veterans’ deaths, compounded by allegations of efforts to cover up the delays at
several Veterans Affairs facilities, including one in Phoenix.

By May 21, the concern had become so intense that President Barack Obama held a news conference after a meeting with Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki. Despite calls from some corners for Shinseki’s resignation, Obama didn’t say the secretary was stepping down.

A few days earlier, the Sunday morning talk shows addressed the growing controversy. One of those who discussed the VA health care troubles on CBS’ “Face the Nation” was Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of the liberal magazine The Nation.

“It’s an outrage,” vanden Heuvel said. “Those who are involved in these longer wait times must be held accountable, prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

“But I think we need to step back. I mean, Congress has cut funding, has slashed funding, for veterans’ benefits over these last years. If anyone should be offering their resignation, maybe the Congress should.”

Vanden Heuvel’s claim is problematic for a pair of reasons.

First, she said “veterans’ benefits” – which include disability payments, pensions, survivor benefits and programs such as the GI Bill and vocational rehabilitation. Those programs are considered “mandatory spending,” which means they’re paid by a statutory formula and aren’t subject to annual budgetary tinkering by Congress.

What vanden Heuvel meant to refer to, based on what she told us and the context of her comments, was spending for the VA health system, which is considered “discretionary” spending and under the purview of Congress.

But Congress hasn’t “cut” or “slashed” funding to the VA health care system. A VA budget summary sheet shows that, far from being “slashed,” discretionary spending on
the VA has risen each year over the last decade. In fact, on Obama’s watch, the VA’s discretionary budget has risen from $47.8 billion in 2009 to $63.4 in 2014 – a one-third increase over five years.

Vanden Heuvel acknowledged that the words she had used on “Face the Nation” made her statement inaccurate.

She said her point was that the Department of Veterans Affairs had been underfunded compared with what it should have been getting.

Is her point valid? We aren’t able to say what, objectively, would be a proper level of departmental funding – that’s a matter about which reasonable people can disagree. However, Congress has consistently agreed to spend less money on the VA than Obama had requested. Since 2010, by our calculations, Congress has agreed to fund about $2 billion a year less, on average, in discretionary spending than Obama had sought. That’s a few percentage points on the president’s proposed budget every year.

On the other hand, it isn’t unusual for presidents, as a negotiating tactic, to make their initial budget proposal on the high side. And Obama eventually signed off on the lower funding levels when he signed the final spending bills.

Our ruling

On “Face the Nation,” vanden Heuvel said, regarding the VA health care allegations, that “Congress has cut funding, has slashed funding, for veterans’ benefits over these last years.”

That’s incorrect, as vanden Heuvel acknowledged to PunditFact. VA health care and “veterans’ benefits” aren’t the same thing, and the pot of money that paid for VA health care has gone up every year. No reasonable definition of “cut” – much less “slash” – fits the data, experts told us.

We’re rating the claim she made on national television, and we rate it False.