At Budget Hearing, Tester Rings Alarm on Defaulting on Veterans

Chairman: “Make no mistake—by tying drastic cuts to the debt ceiling, my House colleagues are putting veterans’ benefits and livelihoods at risk.”

(U.S. Senate) – Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jon Tester yesterday held a hearing with Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Secretary Denis McDonough and Veterans Service Organizations (VSOs) to discuss how the agency’s proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2024 budget aims to better serve veterans and their families—including millions of newly eligible toxic-exposed veterans receiving critical support under the Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our PACT Act.

In his opening remarks, Tester expressed concerns with recent budget proposals floated by the U.S. House of Representatives, and implored Congress to avoid a default that would delay the delivery of critical benefits for more than seven million veterans and their families.

“After finally making good on our long-overdue pledge to address the cost of war for toxic-exposed veterans, our next step cannot be to immediately renege on that pledge. I’m concerned with House efforts to rescind $1.8 billion we already appropriated for delivering veterans’ health care, reimbursing community care providers, and improving health care facilities. And let’s not forget—even if our House colleagues make good on their promise to not gut VA health care, there are plenty of programs outside of VA that are absolutely critical for veterans and their families. Job training programs and efforts to combat veterans homelessness are just a couple examples of what will most surely be on the chopping block. And make no mistake—by tying drastic cuts to the debt ceiling, my House colleagues are putting veterans’ benefits and livelihoods at risk.”

VA Secretary McDonough highlighted in his written testimony that these cuts would come at a time of unprecedented demand at VA.

“Over the last two years, [VA has] delivered more care and more benefits to more Veterans than at any other time in our Nation’s history.”

McDonough further highlighted that the Veterans Benefits Administration set a new record in the last fiscal year—completing more than 1.7 million disability compensation and pension claims, and over that same period, the Veterans Health Administration provided more than 115 million appointments for veterans across the country. He underscored that reducing funding for VA would directly result in fewer outpatient appointments for veterans and fewer claims processers at the Veterans Benefits Administration.

In the second panel, the Committee also heard from leaders from Paralyzed Veterans of America, Disabled American Veterans, and the Veterans of Foreign Wars—authors of this year’s Independent Budget—who weighed in on the agency’s resourcing needs. The VSOs voiced their concerns with the House debt ceiling plan and its potential harm for veterans, and also stressed the importance of bolstering funding for VA infrastructure and the need for swift passage of the Elizabeth Dole Veterans Programs Improvement Act of 2023.

The Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our PACT Act is comprehensive legislation championed by Senator Tester to deliver all generations of toxic-exposed veterans their earned health care and benefits from the VA for the first time in the nation’s history. Among its many priorities, this legislation expands health care for Post-9/11 combat veterans, creates a framework for the establishment of future presumptions of service connection related to toxic exposure, expands VA’s list of service presumptions, and improves resources to support VA’s claims processing.

As of May 16th, VA has received more than 546,000 PACT Act claims—including more than 2,200 from Montana veterans. Nearly 252,000 claims have been completed, with a nearly 80 percent approval rate.