WASHINGTON — Leading veterans groups are opposing House lawmakers plans to extend the Veterans Affairs Choice program with emergency funding, saying the plan unfairly shifts needed monies away from department programs.
But supporters say the move simply keeps the much-needed health care program afloat while lawmakers sort-out long term fixes, and that blocking the move could harm thousands of veterans.
In a letter sent out Saturday, leaders from a coalition of eight veterans groups said they oppose a House plan set for votes Monday that would provide about $2 billion for VA Choice services for the next six months. The funds would come from trims to other VA programs, an offset that the groups said are not in themselves a problem.
However, the groups said they oppose “legislation that includes funding only for the ‘Choice’ program which provides additional community care options, but makes no investment in VA and uses ‘savings’ from other veterans benefits or services to pay for the Choice program.”
They see using savings from VA program changes to pay for additional outside VA care as a step toward privatization of the department, a charge that administration and congressional officials have repeatedly denied.
The coalition — which includes Veterans of Foreign Wars, AMVETS, Disabled American Veterans, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, Military Officers Association of America, Military Order of the Purple Heart, Vietnam Veterans of America and Wounded Warrior Project — calls for lawmakers to vote down the “unacceptable choice funding legislation” and “instead work with the Senate to reach a bipartisan, bicameral agreement.”
House lawmakers are scheduled to leave town at the end of the week for an extended summer recess, and VA officials have said they Choice program will run out of money by mid-August without new funding lines. Department officials have already begun shifting some veterans who use the program for health care into other VA systems.
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The Choice program, created by Congress in 2014, had been controversial for Republicans and Democrats alike. Supporters of the program have expressed frustration with what they call extensive bureaucracy governing the program, which allows veterans who face significant wait times or travel times for VA care to see private physicians at the department’s expense.
Critics have labeled the program the first step towards privatization of VA responsibilities, since it have broadened the number of veterans seeking care outside department hospitals and clinics.
Last week, amid criticism from Democrats of plans that would link short-term funding fixes for the Choice program to more ambitious facility assessment plans, House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Phil Roe, R-Tenn., announced he would push for a simpler, six-month fix to the impending deadline.
Roe’s spokeswoman, Tiffany Haverly, on Saturday said Roe is “committed to working in a bipartisan and bicameral way to ensure veterans have access to the health care they’ve earned and deserve.
“With that said, Secretary Shulkin and other VA officials have made it clear that allowing the Choice Program to run out of money would be a disaster for veterans, which is why he’s moving quickly to ensure the program has sound funding while Congress works on other reforms.”
Among the veterans groups absent from the opposition letter were the American Legion and Paralyzed Veterans of America. In a separate announcement, PVA leaders called for all parties involved to “continue with open minds” in the debate.
“We are not prepared to simply oppose offsets because we believe VA is open to strengthening healthcare for our most catastrophically disabled veterans, which matters above all else,” group executive director Sherman Gillums Jr. said.
Dan Caldwell, policy director of Concerned Veterans for America, offered full support for the House proposal and blasted the veterans coalition for “using this moment to advance their anti-choice agenda instead of doing what’s best for veterans.
“Chairman Roe and his committee have put forward a practical solution that will address the problem quickly and in a fiscally responsible manner. This plan will ensure that the veterans who have been able to successfully use the choice program will not face any lapses in care due to the program running out of money in the coming weeks.”
But the opponents said they are “committed to building a future veterans health care system that modernizes VA and integrates community care whenever needed,” just not the way the current bill is structured.
“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,” their letter stated.
Whether the plan could change again before the Monday vote remains unclear. House and Senate lawmakers have been working throughout the weekend on the issue, with numerous proposals rumored and denied for days.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.