House rejects funding bill for nearly bankrupt VA Choice program
By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 24, 2017
WASHINGTON — House lawmakers rejected legislation Monday that would provide $2 billion in emergency funding for the Veterans Choice Program by taking money from other VA programs, after hearing outcry from veterans groups that viewed it as prioritizing private-sector health care while neglecting VA services.
Lawmakers voted along party lines, 219 in favor of the bill and 186 against it. Only two Democrats voted for the bill, which required a two-thirds majority to pass. The Choice program, which pays for veterans to receive care outside of the VA, is set to run out of funding in mid-August -- potentially putting medical care at risk for thousands of veterans. The $2 billion would have kept the program going for the next six months.
Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, urged lawmakers on Monday to vote against the bill. He said the committee should work with the Senate to come up with a solution both chambers could approve. He argued the proposal voted on Monday would never garner enough votes in the Senate.
In a statement Monday night, Walz said the Senate was already "close to an agreement that would pass in both the House and Senate."
“I think we’re just a little bit early, we need another day,” Walz said. “I would echo that not funding this program before the August recess is not acceptable. But not getting a bill the Senate can agree on and [President Donald Trump] can sign is also not acceptable.”
But time is running out. House lawmakers have only four days before they leave for a monthlong recess, and veterans are already feeling the effects of the funding shortfall.
VA Secretary David Shulkin first warned Congress in June that the program was quickly and unexpectedly running out of money. He attributed the faster spending to increased popularity in the program this year.
Appointment requests through the Choice program are “piling up” at VA hospitals, said Carlos Fuentes, legislative director for the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Joe Chenelly, director of AMVETS, said he’s heard from veterans with long-term health care issues who use the program and whose medical care has been interrupted. Last week, a VA spokesman said the funding shortage – if not addressed before mid-August -- would cause layoffs at Health Net and TriWest, which contract with the VA to help administer the Choice program.
“Allowing the VA Choice program to run dry is not a viable option. We cannot allow it to happen,” said Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, while asking lawmakers to vote for the proposal Monday.
Walz said a compromise was needed to “show a sense of goodwill” to veterans groups that saw Monday’s proposal as dangerous precedent toward privatization.
Eight groups issued a joint statement over the weekend, urging lawmakers to work on another plan to fund the Choice program without trimming other VA programs.
To offset the $2 billion, the House legislation proposed extending pension reductions for Medicaid-eligible veterans in nursing facilities and continuing fees on VA-guaranteed home loans. The cuts were put in place in 2014 when the Choice program was first created. They were set to last until Sept. 30, 2024. The bill would move the end-date through 2027.
“We’re not against Choice. What we’re against is this pay-for is cannibalistic,” said Rick Weidman, legislative director for Vietnam Veterans of America, one of the groups that signed onto the statement. “Choice in the future needs to be in the budget, without having to make cuts elsewhere within VA. Because you can’t keep doing this thing of charging veterans for one thing in order to get another thing.”
Walz said he did not think the proposal should have reignited the debate about privatization. But he asked congressmen to work with senators and veterans groups this week on a solution that they all could agree on.
“We’re very in line on the goals here. We want to get this done, but we have opposition rarely seen from the [veterans service organizations],” Walz said. “What I’m asking is, just give a little to build the coalition, get the thing passed and end this ridiculous argument of privatization versus non-privatization.”
Roe and Walz created a proposal last week to fund the Choice program while investing more into the VA and establishing a nationwide review of VA infrastructure. Negotiations stalled after they presented the idea to veterans groups and members of their committee. The proposal included funding for VA personnel vacancies and 27 leases for more VA clinics and research locations, which the eight veterans groups said the VA urgently needs.
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., the ranking Democrat on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, introduced legislation July 11 providing $2 billion in emergency funding while investing an equal amount in other parts of the VA, primarily personnel and infrastructure.
“If new funding is directed only or primarily to private sector ‘Choice’ care without any adequate investment to modernize VA, the viability of the entire system will soon be in danger,” the statement from the groups reads. It was signed by AMVETS, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, Military Order of the Purple Heart, Vietnam Veterans of America, Military Officers Association of America and Wounded Warrior Project.
Roe fought back against accusations the proposal that failed Monday was neglectful to the VA, noting overall funding and the number of authorized employees at the VA continues to increase each year.
“The idea Congress is focused on just increasing VA’s external capacity is false,” he said.
The debate also played out Monday morning in New Orleans, where Veterans of Foreign Wars is hosting its national convention this week. In his opening speech, VFW Commander Brian Duffy took aim at the proposal and Trump. He encouraged the thousands of VFW members in attendance to call their congressmen and led them in chanting, “No.”
“It would violate the campaign promise that President Donald Trump told our convention a year ago, a promise the VA system would remain a public system,” Duffy said.
While introducing Shulkin to the gathering later Monday morning, Duffy said: “The VFW will continue to be there to help you fix the VA, just as we will be there to point out necessary course corrections, too.”
Shulkin told the crowd in New Orleans that he was not attempting to privatize the department. He wrote the same in a column published in USA Today on Monday. While the VA authorized more health care appointments with private-sector providers – 18 million appointments so far this year – it has also increased appointments at VA facilities, Shulkin wrote.
Trump’s fiscal 2018 budget proposal calls for a $2.7 billion increase for in-house VA care and a $965 million increase for outside health care, he wrote. The total for outside care does not include the $2 billion proposed in the House bill Monday.
“The president and I agree privatization is the wrong path for VA, but we do want to give veterans more choice,” Shulkin said. “For those who don’t understand what this budget shows and say that this is a budget that supports privatization, just take a look at the numbers.”
The conservative group Concerned Veterans of America kicked off its own campaign over the weekend to have congressmen vote “yes” on the House proposal.
“The veterans service organizations and members of Congress who used this as an opportunity to advance a misleading anti-choice agenda are standing directly between millions of veterans and their health care," CVA Director Mark Lucas said after the Monday vote. "They spread false information about Chairman Roe’s proposal in a transparent attempt to tie this bill to unnecessary VA spending."
Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, which was against the proposal, said the bill was "an attempt to exploit a funding crisis to push a political agenda."
"Tonight's failure hopefully opens up room for a Senate compromise that vets groups can support," IAVA said in a statement Monday night. "This should not be a partisan issue, but you can count on tonight's Choice fight being the first of others to come. It will be important in subsequent debates that people across America listen to the trusted voices that represent our 21 million veterans."