Q: Did President Obama cut benefits for veterans by $2.6 billion to give the money to Syrian refugees?
A: No. The Department of Veterans Affairs transferred funds to close a $2.6 billion gap in a health care program. The transfer is unrelated to Syrian refugee aid.
Did President Obama take $2.6 billion from veterans and reallocate $4.5 billion to Syrian migrants?
This rumor started with an article from RedFlag News titled “Obama Cuts 2.6 Billion From Veterans While Allocating 4.5 Billion To Syrian Migrants Moving To America.” RedFlag News is a news aggregator and describes itself as “conservative in tone.”
The article questions the Obama administration’s funding priorities.
RedFlag News: The most recent atrocity by the VA came when the VA went to Congress, less than three months before the end of the fiscal year, short $2.6 billion in funds in order to care for the veterans. … While thousands of veterans are dying waiting for medical care and even more are living on the streets, the United States is sending over several billion dollars to help other countries.
The article from RedFlag News combines two separate stories: a gap in VA funding and the increased aid to Syrian refugees. While the VA experienced a gap of $2.6 billion in 2015 for one program, this shortfall was covered with money from another VA fund. President Obama didn’t “cut” veterans funding, as the headline claimed, and the temporary shortfall did not have to do with the administration’s decision to increase aid for refugees. Also, the $4.5 billion figure for humanitarian aid to refugees is a total for fiscal years 2012 through 2015.
Let’s start with the claim about VA funds.
The Gap in VA Funds
In June 2015, Sloan Gibson, deputy secretary of veterans affairs, testified before the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs on a funding gap for the Veterans Health Administration’s Care in the Community Program, which provides health care for veterans from non-VA medical professionals when a VA facility isn’t able to provide certain specialty care. Gibson explained that there had been more use of the Care in the Community program by veterans in fiscal year 2015, and the VHA expected increased usage to continue through Sept. 30, 2015, the end of that fiscal year.
Sloan Gibson, June 25, 2015: VHA now expects to spend $10.1 billion in FY 2015 for Care in the Community, an increase of $1.9 billion (24 percent) from the $8.2 billion in FY 2014. … We are making efforts to improve how we are managing our Care in the Community program while continuing to do the right thing for veterans and provide essential access to care. In order to continue these efforts, we have determined that, at the current rate, expected demand for Care in the Community in FY 2015 will cost approximately an additional $2.5 billion.
Part of the shortfall stemmed from the fact that the VA overestimated the extent to which veterans would use the Veterans Choice Program, which was implemented in fiscal 2015, to access services from non-VA providers rather than through the Care in the Community Program. While the Veterans Choice Program is similar to the Care in the Community Program in that both programs allow veterans to access care from non-VA providers, the Veterans Choice Program allows veterans to select a provider outside of the VA when they face long wait times or long travel distances, according to Health Net, the company that administers these programs for the VA.
In a February 2016 report on the VA’s health care budget, the Government Accountability Office explained how VA predictions were faulty on which programs veterans would use in 2015.
U.S. Government Accountability Office, Feb. 10, 2016: Veterans’ utilization of Veterans Choice Program services was much lower than expected in fiscal year 2015. VA had estimated that obligations for the Veterans Choice Program in fiscal year 2015 would be $3.2 billion, but actual obligations totaled only $413 million. Instead, VA provided a greater amount of services through the [Care in the Community] program, resulting in total obligations of $10.1 billion, which VA officials stated were much higher than expected for that program in fiscal year 2015.
To make up for the gap in funds, the VA requested that Congress authorize use of the Veterans Choice Fund, as reported by Stars and Stripes. And that’s exactly what Congress did, passing the Surface Transportation and Veterans Health Care Choice Improvement Act of 2015. Obama signed the bill into law on July 31, 2015, authorizing a maximum of $3.3 billion to be transferred from the Veterans Choice Fund to Care in the Community, according to a Congressional Research Service summary of the legislation.
In sum, the VA’s $2.6 billion shortfall was covered, and the VA budget was not cut. This gap was triggered by an increased caseload for the VA and inaccurate predictions about which services veterans would utilize, rather than the direct actions of Obama. Moreover, this gap was unrelated to funds to help the Syrian refugees.
Aid to Refugees
In 2015, the United States also made a pledge to increase its aid to Syrian refugees. However, this money did not come from VA funds.
On Sept. 21, 2015, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters in a press conference that the U.S. would make additional contributions for humanitarian efforts.
Josh Earnest, Sept. 21, 2015: The United States today is committing to provide nearly $419 million in additional humanitarian aid … to Syrians affected by the conflict. … And with this new announcement, the United States has now committed to provide more than $4.5 billion to help address the dire conditions inside Syria and for the more than 4 million Syrian refugees scattered across the region.
As Earnest said, the White House pledged an additional $419 million, which brought the spending total for fiscal year 2015 to more than $1.6 billion, according to a State Department fact sheet. This, in turn, brought the total amount of humanitarian spending since the start of the crisis in fiscal 2012 to more than $4.5 billion. The money went to the United Nations and other organizations assisting refugees in the region.
It is important to note that funds for refugees did not come out of any VA accounts. In fact, the declaration that the U.S. was increasing its contribution to Syrian refugees came nearly two months after Congress had corrected the VA shortfall by allowing the VA to shift funds from one VA account to another.
“Obama Cuts 2.6 Billion From Veterans While Allocating 4.5 Billion To Syrian Migrants Moving To America.” RedFlag News. Accessed 15 Mar 2016.
“FAQs.” RedFlag News. Accessed 15 Mar 2016.
“Sloan D. Gibson: Deputy Secretary of Veterans Affairs.” U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Accessed 15 Mar 2016.
U.S. House of Representatives. Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. Hearing on the State of VA’s Fiscal Year 2015 Budget. 25 Jun 2015.
“What is Patient-Centered Community Care (PCCC)?” Health Net. Accessed 15 Mar 2016.
“Veterans Choice Program.” U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Accessed 15 Mar 2016.
“About Veterans Choice Program.” Health Net. Accessed 28 Mar 2016.
U.S. Government Accountability Office. “VA’S HEALTH CARE BUDGET: Preliminary Observations on Efforts to Improve Tracking of Obligations and Projected Utilization.” 10 Feb 2016.
“The Honorable Robert A. McDonald.” U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Accessed 15 Mar 2016.
U.S. House of Representatives. Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. Testimony on VA Health Care Budget Shortfall. 22 Jul 2015.
Tritten, Travis. “House panel supports closing VA’s $2.6 billion funding gap.” Stars and Stripes. 25 Jun 2015.
U.S. House of Representatives. “H.R.3236 – Surface Transportation and Veterans Health Care Choice Improvement Act of 2015.” 31 Jul 2015.
U.S. Congressional Research Service. “Department of Veterans Affairs FY2016 Appropriations: In Brief.” 18 Nov 2015.
“Daily Press Briefing by the Press Secretary Josh Earnest.” Press Briefing. White House. 21 Sept 2015.
“New U.S. Humanitarian Assistance to Respond to Syria Crisis.” Press Release. U.S. Department of State. 21 Sept 2015.