McCain defends Veterans Choice program amid overhaul

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairs a Senate Committee on Armed Services hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. on Thursday, April 7, 2016.


By TRAVIS J. TRITTEN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: April 8, 2016

WASHINGTON — Sen. John McCain on Thursday defended his troubled Veterans Choice program as the Senate prepares the first comprehensive private-care reform since the program was created in 2014.

McCain, R-Ariz., took to the Senate floor to lay blame for the program’s widespread failure to deliver private care on the Department of Veterans Affairs, and to again call for Veterans Choice to become permanent despite its dysfunction.

Lawmakers have struck a deal to streamline the patchwork of Choice programs around the country after complaints from frustrated veterans unable to get care, but details of the final proposal have not been released. The Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, chaired by Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., could unveil a bill within the next two weeks, according to congressional staff.

“There should be no doubt that the VA is failing to fully and effectively implement the Choice card,” McCain said, speaking of the private-care program. “In doing so, it is preventing our veterans from receiving the flexible care they deserve.”

McCain, along with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, was a key architect of the Choice program, which was created in the wake of the VA’s 2014 national wait time scandal to dramatically increase access to private hospitals and doctors. Veterans are eligible for a Choice card if they cannot get a VA appointment within 30 days or live more than 40 miles from a VA facility.

It was meant to ease the bottleneck at VA health care facilities but has instead created new delays for veterans because of problems in scheduling appointments, processing eligibility and reimbursing private doctors.

McCain said many VA leaders “believe veterans should be forced to stay within the walls of the VA no matter what” and have refused to fully implement the program.

He has sponsored a bill that would make the $10 billion, two-year pilot program permanent, saying Thursday that eliminating it “would only send veterans back to the unacceptable status quo of never-ending wait times for appointments.” It is set to expire later this year.

Despite the criticism from McCain, VA Secretary Bob McDonald has said that reforming Veterans Choice is a top priority for the agency this year and that it backs efforts in the Senate.

Changes being considered by the Senate committee could have far-reaching effects on the program and how veterans receive private care outside the VA system. The details were negotiated by committee member Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C.

Their proposal would consolidate VA programs across the country into a single, simplified system to solve long delays in receiving private care and in getting payments to doctors, according to Burr.

Changes to the Choice program and private care could be rolled into a committee omnibus bill that will include new department powers to hold executives accountable and a raft of other reforms.

Committee spokeswoman Amanda Maddox said Friday that the committee is “productively moving forward” on the VA reform legislation.

This month marks two years since reports of secret wait lists at VA hospitals exploded into a national scandal. Isakson said Wednesday that new comprehensive VA reform is his highest priority.

“I have been working for weeks to craft bipartisan legislation that I believe can pass the Senate that would require significant improvements in the way the VA treats our veterans and holds its employees accountable,” he said in a statement.

Twitter: @Travis_Tritten