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Veterans groups warn against unlimited choice for health care

Hundreds of American Legion members attend a a presentation on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, March 1, 2017, as members of Congress heard testimony on issues of concern to military veterans.

CARLOS BONGIOANNI/STARS AND STRIPES

By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 1, 2017

WASHINGTON — Speaking to House and Senate veterans’ affairs committees, the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars on Wednesday warned against the Department of Veterans Affairs excessively outsourcing medical treatment to the private sector.

Charles Schmidt, national commander of the American Legion, spoke out against “all-out privatization or any dissolution of the VA system.” VFW National Commander Brian Duffy echoed that message later, saying veterans want to “fix – not dismantle – the VA health care system.”

Rep. Jack Bergman, R-Mich., asked whether American Legion members would rather receive “quality health care or health care from VA.” The phrasing prompted discussion from the crowd of a few hundred veterans.

“The truth is, the two aren’t mutually exclusive,” answered Louis Celli, an American Legion director. “The VA trains some of the finest doctors in the country, and we want to make sure it retains the highest quality physicians. We’ll continue to be a partner with them.”

The comments followed a presentation from VA Secretary David Shulkin on Sunday in which he proposed removing rules from the Veterans Choice program that limit the number of veterans allowed to seek non-VA care.

“The bottom line is, if you open up choice to anyone, and they can go anywhere, it will eventually drain resources from the VA,” Disabled American Veterans Director Garry Augustine said Tuesday. “The VA will eventually whither on the vine.”

The American Legion, VFW and Disabled American Veterans were invited to present their legislative priorities to lawmakers this week.

Republicans on congressional veterans’ affairs committees have said in recent months that they don’t want to privatize the department. Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., reiterated that Wednesday..

“We don’t want to privatize the VA, and I want to underscore that,” Tillis said. “Anyone here who tells you we’re intent on privatizing the VA is not right.”

At the end of Wednesday’s hearing, Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., questioned whether that was true.

“Senator Tillis started out saying nobody wants to privatize stuff up here, but if you listen to some of the questions, it sounds like they want to privatize stuff up here,” Tester told the American Legion. “So, your input is critically, critically important.”

Shulkin also testified to the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs last month that he would not let a privatization of the VA occur “under my watch.”

Speaking to the DAV on Sunday, Shulkin unveiled his 10 priorities for the department, one of which was to redesign the Veterans Choice Program into “Choice 2.0.”

The Choice program, which Congress created in 2014 and funded with $10 billion, is set to expire in August with about $1 billion unspent. Shulkin is looking for Congress to eliminate the expiration date and reauthorize the program before he works to redesign it.

Duffy called on Congress to quickly work on a solution to the choice program, rather than “waiting until the 11th hour.”

Shulkin wants to do away with rules that stipulate veterans could only go outside of the VA for health care if they had to wait more than 30 days for an appointment or live more than 40 miles driving distance from a VA facility. Some veterans and lawmakers have criticized the 40-mile, 30-day rule for limiting veterans’ choices, and Shulkin called the program “extremely complex and bureaucratic.”

Shulkin has not released plans for which veterans would be allowed to receive private-sector health care, or in what instances, but has said he wants a system with less “red tape.”

The DAV, VFW and American Legion have said they want some private options available to veterans, but not unlimited choice.

The organizations discussed other priorities with lawmakers, including more gender-specific health care for women at VA facilities, expanded benefits for caregivers and a modernization of the process that veterans use to appeal claims for disability and pension compensation.

The three groups told lawmakers they have not met with President Donald Trump, though they have tried. The American Legion said it was anticipating a meeting.

During his address Tuesday night, Trump promised to increase VA funding.

“Our veterans have delivered for this nation, and now we must deliver for them,” Trump said.

wentling.nikki@stripes.com
Twitter: @nikkiwentling

 

American Legion National Commander Charles Schmidt speaks during a presentation on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, March 1, 2017, as members of Congress heard from American Legion representatives on issues that are of concern to military veterans.
CARLOS BONGIOANNI/STARS AND STRIPES

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