WASHINGTON (AP) – The Republican-led House is moving to allow the Department of Veterans Affairs to shift $2 billion from other programs to cover a sudden budget shortfall in its Choice program of private-sector care, a plan drawing stiff protests from veterans’ groups.
Lawmakers are expected to vote Monday to provide a six-month funding fix to Choice, which offers veterans federally paid medical care outside the VA and is a priority of President Donald Trump. Put in place after a 2014 wait-time scandal at the Phoenix VA hospital, the Choice program allows veterans to receive care from outside doctors if they must wait 30 days or more for an appointment or drive more than 40 miles to a VA facility.
VA Secretary David Shulkin has warned that without congressional action Choice would run out of money by mid-August, causing disruptions in medical care to thousands of patients. Veterans’ groups are asking that additional emergency money be invested in the VA as well as Choice.
At its national convention in New Orleans Monday, the leader of Veterans of Foreign Wars took aim at President Donald Trump over the House plan. VFW National Commander Brian Duffy described the proposal as unacceptable privatization, saying it would lead to higher out of pocket costs for veterans and harm their care.
“It would violate the campaign promise that President Trump told our convention a year ago – a promise that the VA system would remain a public system because it is a public trust,” Duffy said. “Send that message to Congress that the VFW – that means you – says ‘No’ on this proposal.”
VFW members in the convention hall were heard chanting “No.”
Veterans’ groups see the House plan as setting dangerous precedent because it takes money from core VA benefits to pay for private-sector care. The plan would trim pensions for some veterans and collect fees for housing loans guaranteed by the VA. Eight major veterans’ groups including VFW issued a joint statement over the weekend, expressing their opposition and displeasure after the House plan was quietly released last Friday after days of closed-door negotiations.
“Veterans’ health care benefits have already been ‘paid for’ through the service and sacrifice of the men and women who wore our nation’s uniform, millions of whom suffered injuries, illnesses and lifelong disabilities,” the groups said.
They are urging the House to work with the Senate to reach a compromise before the August recess.
The groups also include AMVETS, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, Disabled American Veterans, Vietnam Veterans of America, Military Officers Association of America, Military Order of the Purple Heart and Wounded Warrior Project. American Legion, the nation’s largest veterans’ group, previously expressed their concerns in late June.
Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia, the chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, has not said whether he would be willing to adopt the House proposal. The panel’s top Democrat, Jon Tester of Montana, introduced a bill earlier this month that would provide equal levels of extra funding for Choice and VA programs.
Paul Rieckhoff, CEO and founder of IAVA, said Monday that veterans’ groups intended to stand firm in opposition.
“House Republicans are driving toward a VA bill that is opposed by most of the leading veterans’ organizations in America. The question is why? The lesson for Congress will be learned the hard way when our members express their voice at the ballot box,” Rieckhoff said.
Shulkin announced the budget shortfall last month, citing unexpected demand from veterans for private care as well as poor budget planning. To slow spending, the department last month instructed VA medical centers to limit the number of veterans it sent to private doctors.
During negotiations last week, House Republican leaders insisted on spending offsets and Democrats ultimately agreed to a temporary fix that involved shifting $2 billion to Choice.
The House plan could have some unintended results involving expansion of mental health coverage. The housing fees being proposed to pay for Choice had already been earmarked in a bill passed by a House committee last week to pay for additional mental health care to thousands of former service members with less-than-honorable discharges. The bill co-sponsored by Reps. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., and Beto O’Rourke, D-Tex., was warmly welcomed by veterans groups and the VA. But its fate in the House now appears less certain without a clear funding authority to cover the nearly $1 billion cost.
Currently, more than 30 percent of VA appointments are in the private sector, up from fewer than 20 percent in 2014, as the VA’s more than 1,200 health facilities struggle to meet growing demands for medical care.
The VA has an annual budget of nearly $167 billion.
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