The fiscal cliff is no longer looming. We went over it in an old barrel just like the daredevils of old in the neighborhood of Niagara Falls, and what we face now is the Freddy Krueger of budget cutting known as the sequestration. These are automatic cuts to virtually every aspect of the budget. Sequestration is supposed to total $1.2 trillion over the next ten years, and the countdown to March 1 seems to be speeding along with no slowdown in sight.
One group of Americans appears to be immune to these looming cuts. Veteran’s benefits, among a few other programs, are exempt. But that doesn’t mean that there will be no effect. Instead, just like in the wars recently fought, there is a significant likelihood of collateral damage.
With all these cuts, it might be easy to demonize any group that appears to be exempt. Instead, a Pew Research Center survey shows that most Americans actually favor increasing spending on veteran’s benefits among other programs. According to the survey, the greatest differences are between the political partisans, and they differ only in degree. No one wants the nation’s veterans to suffer any cuts to the benefits they were promised in return for serving the nation.
The reality is that while U.S. Department of Veteran's Affairs (V.A.) is exempt from cuts to specific benefit programs, other cuts will impact our veterans anyway. The V.A., like the Department of Defense, might be forced to furlough certain employees. Some of those employees might be employed as information technology workers, who are key to the ongoing revamping of the system responsible for payment of post-9/11 G.I. bill funds to veteran students. The program, as ambitious in scope as the original G.I. Bill, has been plagued by slow payments to both students and schools alike. In today’s society a person’s education is what will determine how far in life they can go. Sequestration cuts to non-VA-funded education in general are going to be painful enough for many people; when we add in the unintended consequences represented by the already ailing post-9/11 G.I. Bill, the potential for long term harm cannot be denied.
As important as education is, the cornerstone benefit the government provides for our veterans is in medical services. The V.A. recognizes the need to continually provide more and better service. To meet this need, V.A. has actually hired more mental health professionals. Sequestration threatens this step forward because of an obscure part of the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985. Section 255 of the act exempts all VA programs from any sequester and Section 256 allows up to 2% of V.A. medical spending to be cut. The conflicting language means that the new hires announced might not be fully realized. It could also result in consequences as mundane yet troubling as not being able to acquire certain medical supplies in a timely manner.
Until it actually occurs, no one person can accurately predict what, if any, consequences might hit the V.A. benefit programs. But, with record numbers of veterans using educational and medical assistance stemming from their services rendered, the potential to "put a human face" on sequestration still exists - and must be met. The challenge is to ensure that promises made are promises kept. While fiscal sanity has to occur, the collateral damage potential of sequestration cannot be overlooked.