WASHINGTON — House Republicans suffered a surprising setback during a full chamber vote on veterans funding Monday which put in doubt the future of the controversial Veterans Affairs Choice Program, with just days left to find another solution.
A proposed fix that would have provided $2 billion to the health care program over the next six months failed to get enough votes to meet parliamentary requirements, failing despite a majority-backed tally of 219-186. Under rules, a two-thirds majority was needed to advance the measure.
The move left Republican leaders upset at what they saw as a reversal of an agreement with key chamber Democrats on the program fix. During floor debate, House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., called the measure a critical and direct solution to the problem.
“We know that veteran demand for care through Choice has never been higher and consequently the remaining money in the Veterans Choice Program will run out in mid-August, a few short weeks from now,” he said. “We cannot allow that to happen.”
House members are scheduled to start their extended summer recess at the end of the week. VA officials have said without additional money for the Choice accounts in the next few weeks, thousands of veterans will be forced off the program, and thousands of third-party administrators will be cut off from the department’s systems.
But Democrats and a coalition of eight veterans groups protested using offsets from trims to existing programs and fee reauthorizations for the Choice program, one of several VA programs which reimburses private-sector physicians for veterans’ healthcare services.
The groups said that money should come from sources outside VA programming, since the money was not directly returning to the department. Roe and supporters of the plan called that confused logic.
Eight major veterans' organizations on Saturday urged Congress to provide emergency money to the Department of Veterans Affairs without cutting other VA programs as the House moved quickly to address a budget shortfall that threatened medical care for thousands of patients.
“First, providing money for Choice is providing money to support the VA health care system,” he said. “Choice is a VA program and through it, veteran patients were able to access care that have otherwise been required to be long.”
“Second, the idea that Congress has been pouring money into VA community care programs to the detriment of addressing VA’s in-house capacities is erroneous. VA’s bottom line has increased substantially since the turn of the century while most other government agencies have seen theirs stagnant.”
While opposing the plan, committee ranking member Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., defended Roe for working towards compromise and rejected accusations the Republican funding plan amounted to “privatization” of VA services.
But he also said he did not believe the fix would work.
“It’s apparent in the Senate that (this plan) will not pass,” he said. “We will not have money for the Choice Program … If we can’t find compromise that gets something across the finish line, that actually does something for veterans, everything else is just message for politics.”
Last week, Republican leaders believed Democrats had signed off on the six-month fix, after committee officials pulled back an even broader plan that linked the extra Choice money to other facility assessment work and department reforms.
In a post-vote statement, Roe said he was disappointed “the concerns raised on the House floor today were not mentioned during what I thought was an open and honest conversation” in recent days.
But Democratic officials said that was before the offsets were clear, and before significant opposition from veterans groups emerged. They had hoped Republicans would keep working for a different solution before bringing the disputed plan to a full chamber vote.
Neither side presented an immediate plan for a new fix. Meetings between House and Senate committee members are set for later this week.
In an editorial Monday, Shulkin again promises that department health services won’t be undermined by planned reforms.
Meanwhile, VA officials have promised an overhauled Choice plan in coming months, to include less bureaucracy and clearer eligibility rules for the program based on medical need instead of geographical location.
The program was flush with money as recently as last spring, when lawmakers passed legislation to remove deadlines for funding expiration. But in the last few months, usage has spiked significantly, with nearly $2 billion spent in less than half a year.
The Choice vote failure was a negative mark on an otherwise upbeat day for veterans’ legislation in the chamber. Eight other measures related to VA, including an expansion of GI Bill benefits for reservists and wounded veterans, all received bipartisan backing in the House. They’re expected to be passed later this week.
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.