New Hampshire's senators have asked the Obama administration to safeguard a new program that lets veterans see a doctor outside the Veterans Affairs system and have introduced legislation to make the program permanent in several states.

Reacting to a request in the White House's fiscal 2016 budget to reallocate funds for the Veterans Choice Program to other programs within VA, Democrat Jeanne Shaheen and Republican Kelly Ayotte fired off a letter to President Obama on Friday, criticizing what they say is an effort to erode a program enacted with bipartisan support in Congress.

The administration's proposal to defund the program "jeopardizes veterans' access to care and undermines the principle at the heart of the program — veterans' ability to choose where they receive care," they wrote.

The $10 billion Veterans Choice program was approved in August as part of a massive bill designed to alleviate lengthy wait times for veterans needing medical care.

The legislation required the program to remain in place for two years after implementation.

But with the release of the administration's budget proposal Feb. 2, VA Assistant Secretary for Management Helen Tierney said VA officials want to reallocate a portion of the funds because they have "a strong indication that this is not the veterans' preferred choice" and veterans "would prefer to remain in the VA" for medical care.

Tierney could not provide any data on program utilization when asked.

In a statement provided to Military Times, a VA official defended the request to move funds, saying the department needs flexibility to ensure that veterans get the care they need in a timely manner.

"Currently, we have no ability to shift resources between Choice Programs and VA-provided care," the official said.

That flexibility is needed to ensure that VA can provide care at VA facilities, where, it appears, the veterans want to receive it. "We have anecdotal indications from veterans and their representatives that they would prefer to get their care in VA facilities from the medical professionals they have," the official said.

Shaheen and Ayotte expressed concern that the program is underutilized because, at least in New Hampshire, it was introduced to veterans in a manner they say caused "confusion."

To protect the program in their state as well as in Alaska and Hawaii — the only three states that lack a full-service VA medical center — the pair introduced legislation that, if approved, would make Veterans Choice permanent for veterans in these states.

Reducing Veterans Choice card resources "will narrow their options and reduce access to the care they seek," the senators wrote to Obama. "That is unacceptable and inconsistent with congressional intent."

Staff writer Leo Shane III contributed to this report.

Patricia Kime is a senior writer covering military and veterans health care, medicine and personnel issues.

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