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Acting VA secretary wants Congress to act on Choice reform

In a Nov. 2, 2017 file photo, Robert L. Wilkie, then the nominee to be Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, listens during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill. Wilkie will serve as acting Secretary of Veterans Affairs, it was announced on March 28, 2017.

STARS AND STRIPES

By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: April 9, 2018

WASHINGTON — The acting secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs supports a package of VA reforms Congress failed to pass last month and urged lawmakers Monday to try again.

Robert Wilkie wrote in a statement that the VA and Congress need to come together to overhaul the VA Choice program, which veterans use to receive private-sector medical care. Lawmakers and large veterans organizations agree the program is complex and difficult for veterans to use, and they’ve been working for more than a year to garner support to pass large-scale reforms.

The Choice program was created in response to the VA wait-time scandal – uncovered in Phoenix four years ago Monday.

“It’s time to fix the Choice program – as well as the department’s other non-VA care efforts – once and for all by merging them into a single, streamlined community care program that’s easy to use for veterans and VA employees,” Wilkie wrote.

Wilkie told members of the House and Senate veterans’ affairs committees Monday that he supported a package of reforms they failed to attach to Congress’ massive spending bill in March. The package was a deal between Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., the chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, and Sens. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., and Jon Tester, D-Mont., who lead the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

In addition to overhauling the Choice program, the reforms included an expansion of benefits for veteran caregivers, as well as a plan to initiate a systematic review of VA infrastructure, with the intention of disposing of aging and underused facilities nationwide.

Wilkie expressed urgency Monday, noting Congress has been forced in multiple instances during the last year to approve emergency funding for the program. The program faces another funding shortfall – it’s slated to run out of money in early June.

TriWest Healthcare Alliance, which contracts with the VA to arrange private-sector care for veterans through the Choice program, warned lawmakers last week that another shortfall could lead to restricted care for veterans, as well as layoffs and financial ruin for the alliance.

Wilkie, who came to the VA from the Defense Department, is temporarily leading the VA following the dismissal of former VA Secretary David Shulkin on March 28. He sat down with several large veterans organizations for the first time Friday and is scheduled to meet with Roe in the coming days.

In an official release last week, the VA rejected claims by Shulkin that he was fired because administration officials sought to privatize the agency and saw him as an obstacle.

“There is no effort underway to privatize VA, and to suggest otherwise is completely false and a red herring designed to distract and avoid honest debate about the real issues surrounding veterans’ health care,” the VA statement read.

It’s uncertain whether Congress can gain enough support for major VA reforms before veterans and lawmakers hear from Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson, the White House physician and President Donald Trump’s pick to lead the VA.

Some lawmakers and veterans groups have expressed concern over Jackson’s lack of management experience and knowledge of VA issues. They were looking to Jackson’s confirmation hearing to learn more about him and the direction that he wants to lead the massive agency.

A confirmation hearing for Jackson had not been scheduled as of Monday.

Roe said Monday that he was working with other lawmakers to “find a path forward” for the reforms.

“I am grateful acting Secretary Wilkie expressed his support of the bicameral, bipartisan agreement reached in March, and that he is bringing increased awareness to the limited funding remaining in the Choice Program account,” Roe said.

Wentling.nikki@stripes.com
Twitter: @nikkiwentling

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