Witham: Are vets’ health benefits being used for illegal immigrants?


William L. Witham Jr. is a retired Kent County resident judge who has served over 40 years in Delaware’s justice system. He is also a former leader in the U.S. Army Reserve and National Guard, with 34 years of service, and a member of the Advisory Board of A Better Delaware.

Veteran benefits, including health care, are not just a nice perk for veterans. They are something earned through the service, and often sacrifice, of our armed forces, dedicated to defending our country.

Recently, there has been a lot of debate about access to appointments and health care provided to veterans, here in Delaware and around the country. There is a great deal of concern that Veterans Affairs is diverting resources from veterans to provide health care for illegal immigrants in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

There has been a long-standing arrangement between Veterans Affairs and ICE to process claims for illegal immigrants’ medical care. It is an interagency agreement with the VA and the ICE Health Services Corps to provide health care claim processing and referral services for illegal immigrant patients. The cost of the care is to come from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement budget. Though it has been in place since 2002, members of Congress, prior senior-level Veterans Affairs administrators and border control agents were recently surprised to learn of this arrangement. When they became aware, they held hearings and proposed legislation to be sure no resources are diverted to prevent or delay health care for our veterans.

Darin Selnick, who served as Veterans Affairs’ adviser on the Domestic Policy Council during the Trump administration and also as a senior adviser to the VA secretary, said the arrangement was a surprise to him and others he knew who served during the administration. He believes it would have been stopped if it were more widely known among officials. He further points out, “In my position, we would have stopped this because, if the VA had the extra ability to do this, then they should have been doing it for the veterans and not for another agency.”

It has been difficult to know exactly what the costs are, how they are adjusted and whether Veterans Affairs’ health resources are diverted from veterans. The administration claims that the agency does not provide any funding for health care to Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees. It claims that only 10 of its employees are funded by ICE — the same number funded in 2002. But the increase in numbers is staggering. In fiscal year 2021, Customs budgeted more than $74 million for payment to Veterans Affairs for referral and medical claims processing. And, in fiscal year 2022, the VA staff processed 161,538 immigrant health care claims. These numbers call into question the claim that there are only 10 people handling these matters. At the same time, Veterans Affairs reports that, in 2023, there was a backlog of 378,000 claims by veterans and that they took an average of over 125 days to process. The agency expects the backlog to grow in 2024. It strains credibility to suggest that there has not been an adverse impact on veterans and their access to timely health care, as immigrant claims seem to have been prioritized.

Further, Veterans Affairs allows illegal immigrants to access the Community Care Network, a system that allows veterans to receive care covered by the VA at non-VA facilities. The use of these centers is intended to provide more timely medical care to veterans. Adding additional demand on those resources necessarily affects access to care for our veterans.

All these circumstances lead to ever-increasing pressure on federal resources, particularly Veterans Affairs, to provide assistance to the unlimited inflow of immigrants. We cannot and should not divert the limited resources we have to provide health care to our veterans. They should be our first priority.

Reader reactions, pro or con, are welcomed at civiltalk@iniusa.org.

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