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Lawmakers move toward agreement on funding for nearly bankrupt VA program

By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 26, 2017

WASHINGTON — The Department of Veterans Affairs announced Wednesday that House and Senate lawmakers came to a compromise to keep the Veterans Choice Program funded, while authorizing leases for new VA clinics and research locations, though a House staffer said there was no firm agreement.

The legislation announced by the VA would include $2.1 billion for the Choice program, which allows veterans to receive health care from private medical facilities, according to a VA statement. It would also invest in 28 leases for VA facilities, some of which have been held up by Congress for two years.

The bill will also include provisions making it easier for the VA to hire medical personnel, according to the statement. The latest VA data shows 45,360 vacancies in the VA health care system.

“I urge the House of Representatives to act swiftly, so this legislation can be considered in the Senate before the August recess begins,” VA Secretary David Shulkin said in the statement.

Tiffany Haverly, spokesman for Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs said later Wednesday a firm agreement hadn’t been reached “but negotiations are ongoing.”

The move comes two days after the House rejected a bill to provide $2 billion to the Choice program by taking money from other programs. Eight veterans groups strongly opposed that bill, arguing it prioritized private-sector health care while neglecting VA services. They saw it as a dangerous precedent for the VA to transition completely to private care.

Lawmakers voted along party lines, 219 in favor of the bill and 186 against S. 114. Only two Democrats voted for the bill, which required a two-thirds majority to pass.

The Choice program is set to run out of money by mid-August, and House lawmakers have only two days left to approve a solution before leaving for their August recess.

If Congress doesn’t step in, the lack of funding could cause lapses in medical care for thousands of veterans. The VA would be forced to lay off workers with Health Net and TriWest, which contract with the VA to help administer the Choice program.

Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., who led opposition to the bill on the House floor Monday, vowed to work with both chambers to come up with a new plan to pass this week.

Last week, Walz and Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, worked on a proposal to fund the Choice program while investing more money 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.

On Monday, Roe said he wanted to pass only the urgently needed funding for the Choice program and work out details on the other issues later. But Walz said the group was close to a compromise and should wait to pass legislation that had bipartisan support in the House and Senate and that veterans groups could rally behind.

“With tonight’s vote result, there is now a new opening for the House and Senate to work together in a bipartisan, bicameral manner to rapidly reach agreement to continue funding the Choice program uninterrupted in the short term – without forcing veterans themselves to pay for it – while also making long overdue and urgent investments in VA health care capacity for the long term,” the eight veterans groups wrote after Monday’s vote. The joint statement was signed by AMVETS, Disabled American Veterans, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, Military Officers Association of America, Military Order of the Purple Heart, Veterans of Foreign Wars and Vietnam Veterans of America.

Shulkin first warned of the Choice funding gap in June, when the account held about $821 million. The account dropped by $500 million in one month, from March to April.

Shulkin attributed the faster spending to an increase in the program’s popularity during the last six months. Participation in community care programs was up 26 percent during the same period last year, for a total of 18 million appointments made outside of the VA system, Shulkin wrote in a USA Today editorial Monday.

During a veterans rally in Ohio on Tuesday night, Trump promised to triple the number of veterans who seek care outside of the VA. The rally was part of a weeklong celebration of servicemembers by the White House.

In his editorial and multiple times since he took the position as VA secretary, Shulkin has attempted to ease concerns among veterans organizations about attempts to privatize the department.

“The president and I agree privatization is the wrong path for VA, but we do want to give veterans more choice,” he said Monday at a VFW convention.

wentling.nikki@stripes.com
Twitter: @nikkiwentling

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