WASHINGTON — House lawmakers easily passed an extension of the controversial Veterans Affairs Choice Card program on Wednesday, a move department officials say will keep them from denying needed medical care to thousands of veterans in coming months.
The measure passed the chamber by a voice vote. Earlier in the week, it cleared the Senate without opposition. The White House is expected to sign the measure into law in coming days.
The Choice Card program, created by Congress in the wake of VA's 2014 wait time scandal, is one of multiple offerings by the department for veterans to seek medical care outside the VA system. Veterans who face lengthy wait times for VA hospital appointments or live more than 40 miles from VA clinics are eligible to use the program to seek private-sector medical care instead.
Lawmakers set aside $10 billion for the program then, but included language that scheduled a shutdown of the program in August 2017.
In Feburary, VA Secretary David Shulkin said that expiration date for the program has already created problems for physicians planning long-term care under the program, including female veterans seeking prenatal care for babies due in the fall.
"If we don't do this extension, this is going to be a disaster for veterans," he warned.
Almost $1 billion is still left in the program, and the new legislation allows VA officials to continue using the program until that money is used up.
In the meantime, House and Senate officials have promised to work with VA leaders in coming months to update and improve the program. House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Phil Roe, R-Tenn., said he is hopeful Congress can pass a new outside care plan before the end of the year.
"The Choice program is far from perfect," he said. "But three years later, more than a million veterans have used it to get care they needed faster and closer to home. Choice has also led to a nationwide conversation about the importance of the VA healthcare system, the need for VA to be a better partner to community providers and hospitals everywhere."
Committee Ranking Member Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., said allowing the program to expire would be "a waste of money, waste of time, and it would put veterans' wait times higher."
"This gives us time to rewrite the program. It gives us time to address the problems with Choice."
The program has received significant criticism for being overly bureaucratic, for both veterans trying to schedule appointments and doctors looking for VA to reimburse their costs.
Shulkin has promised to unveil a "Choice 2.0" in coming months, possibly dumping the time and geographic limits on the current program.
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.