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How U.S. debt default could negatively impact the VA and veterans

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Veterans funding is at the heart of two high-stakes showdowns in Washington right now - budget talks and the impending default on America's debt. If the U.S. does default, as soon as June 1, the VA could be short of cash. And as NPR's Quil Lawrence reports, that would come at an immediate cost to millions of veterans who get health care and disability checks each month.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: I caught Jesse Reynolds at his home, which is his truck.

JESSE REYNOLDS: I was in Utah, and I'm going towards Flagstaff. You know, I live in my truck, in this little camper thing.

LAWRENCE: Reynolds served 14 years. A head injury cut short his time with Navy SEALs. And now he's trying to figure out life as a civilian.

REYNOLDS: You know, this last year and a half has just been trying to, you know, find myself again, trying to just keep myself alive.

LAWRENCE: He's been taking classes online, living in his truck with his two dogs. His VA disability check is his only income right now, and if it were late, he'd feel the pain right away.

REYNOLDS: I can't imagine, to be honest with you. It would just be, hope I have enough to feed the dogs and myself. Maybe get two bags of dog food - one for them, one for me.

PATRICK MURRAY: A lot of people have been asking, what does this mean for me? What does this mean for my benefits?

LAWRENCE: Patrick Murray is legislative director for the VFW.

MURRAY: And our first answer is, we don't really know, because we've never had this happen before.

LAWRENCE: That's because the U.S. government has never defaulted before. If it does, it could mean late checks and troops and veterans missing rent or mortgages or car payments. And it could hit the people who serve those veterans, says Murray.

MURRAY: It could affect the pay of federal workers who process VA claims, you know, or the VA doctors and nurses.

LAWRENCE: Murray says he hopes the debt ceiling isn't being used as a bargaining chip in the other showdown, where Republicans are trying to cut the budget. Republican House Veterans Affairs chairman, Mike Bost, says emphatically, he's a veteran, and he won't cut the funding.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIKE BOST: As a father of a veteran and a grandfather of a veteran and a grandson of a veteran and a son of a veteran and a nephew of a veteran, you better believe that I'm dead serious, that we're not cutting veterans. And I mean it.

LAWRENCE: Bost says Democrats in the White House are scaring vets for political gain.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BOST: And yet, with no regard for the impact of their words, they continue to speak lies about how House Republicans are cutting veterans benefits, and it's false.

LAWRENCE: But then, yesterday, House Republicans put out a bill that keeps veterans funding level, but moves about $15 billion from a massive new program to help veterans suffering from toxic exposures and makes it discretionary funding. Allison Jaslow with Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America says that means it can be cut annually. And she is one of the veterans who might be affected.

ALLISON JASLOW: The PACT Act was passed last year to help care for veterans who have been exposed to toxins whether it's water at Camp Lejeune that was contaminated or burn pits like the one that I slept next to for 15 months in Iraq. Veterans have gotten a lot of lip service. We've been told that - through negotiations, that veterans funding isn't on the table. The problem is we haven't gotten those guarantees in writing at this point.

LAWRENCE: Which leaves vets, like Jesse Reynolds, still worried as he drives his truck to his next camping spot for the night.

REYNOLDS: We're kind of expendable, I guess. So it is terrifying to know that, yeah, I could be really - I could be struggling more than I already am really soon. And that's pretty scary.

LAWRENCE: Quil Lawrence, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering veterans' issues nationwide. He won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his coverage of American veterans and a Gracie Award for coverage of female combat veterans. In 2019 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America honored Quil with its IAVA Salutes Award for Leadership in Journalism.

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