Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald is promising Congress that his department is not trying to dismantle the new Choice Card program.
But lawmakers remain skeptical.
On Thursday, McDonald testified before the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee about VA's fiscal 2016 budget request, which includes plans to ask for "flexibility" to shift money designated for the Choice Card program to other areas if usage of the card doesn't pick up.
That suggestion has drawn a defensive response from Capitol Hill, where lawmakers just seven months ago approved $15 billion for the Choice Card program in response to VA's patient wait time scandal.
McDonald tried to calm those concerns, saying his message had gotten muddled and his intentions misconstrued.
"We are for the Choice program, and we are for outside care," he said. "But we also need flexibility."
So far, about 500,000 veterans have inquired about the new program, designed to give veterans who live 40 miles or more from a VA facility or who face lengthy wait times for care the option of seeking treatment from private physicians instead.
But fewer than 30,000 vets have been able to use the cards, and fewer than 50 of those are doing so because they live 40 or more miles from a VA facility.
VA officials say that's possible evidence the demand for outside care is well below congressional expectations. But lawmakers said it's evidence that VA is mismanaging the program.
Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., told McDonald that VA bureaucrats have been overly harsh with their interpretation of the rules, excluding thousands of veterans for whom private care would make more sense.
One day earlier, a bipartisan coalition of 41 senators sent a letter to McDonald asking for fixes in the program, calling the implementation to date confusing and frustrating.
"It is deeply disturbing that the administration would try to reduce funding for this program before this program has even been allowed to work … and as barriers to care continue to exist," the letter stated.
Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., the committee chairman, said he's willing to listen to VA's requests for help with budget flexibility — McDonald said more than 70 funding lines in the VA budget currently cannot be shifted — but also said he would not support early defunding of the Choice Card program.
That mirrored comments earlier in February from members of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, who said they want the two-year program to remain untouched until officials have a better sense of the true demand.
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.