WASHINGTON — Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin said he hopes to have a replacement for the controversial Choice Card program before Congress by this fall, a move that would give lawmakers just a few months of debate before the current program runs out.
"It's a tight time schedule," he said during an interview for C-SPAN's Newsmakers taped Thursday. "But I am confident when it comes to protecting and honoring our commitments to veterans, the president and Congress are committed to doing whatever is needed to meet that time frame."
President Trump is scheduled to sign legislation next week extending the Choice program past August until the end of 2017, when funding for those services are expected to run out.
The Choice Card program was established by Congress in 2014 in the wake of the VA wait times scandal as a way to increase health care access for veterans. Patients facing lengthy waits for appointments or significant travel to VA facilities can use the funds to get private-sector care instead.
But veterans groups and lawmakers have lamented implementation of the program in recent years, saying most patients have difficulty navigating the rules and red tape associated with the outside care options.
Shuklin called the Choice extension passed unanimously in the House and Senate "absolutely critical" to veterans care. Almost $1 billion is still left in the program, and VA officials had said they would start turning away some applications in coming weeks if an extension was not approved.
But in his C-SPAN interview, Shulkin said that the extension "is just the beginning" of work on the program.
"We need to make sure the Choice program not only continues, but it works better for veterans," he said. "And we know it hasn’t worked the way we wanted it to work. It’s too complex, it’s too hard to use.
"So we are working hard now with Congress to redesign a better, improved way of accessing care in the community."
Whether that plan will be delivered with enough time to pass Congress before the current program funding runs out is unclear. The Choice program extension, though largely uncontroversial, took nearly two months to get through Congress. The original legislation took about four months of intense House and Senate negotiations.
Cost will also be a major factor. The original program had a fixed price tage of $10 billion, expected to fund services for about three years.
Shulkin has said the revamped "Choice 2.0" plan may include elimination of the wait time and distance rules in the current program, along with new procedures for scheduling appointments and repaying private-sector physicians.
But he also said during the interview that his department needs to look beyond funding hikes for fixes to long-term care and programming problems. Trump has proposed a 6 percent increase in department funding for fiscal 2018.
"The problems in VA are not financial problems," he said.
"Going forward, I’m looking to put in systems so that we don’t need to go back year after year and ask for double-digit (budget) increases. We have to look to fix VA without that."
The full interview with Shulkin is scheduled to air on C-SPAN Sunday at 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. ET.
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at email@example.com.