The Veterans Choice program is a game changer in providing health services for veterans, with more seeking treatment — and getting it — rather than languishing on waitlists, the chairman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee said Wednesday.

Addressing a military and family symposium hosted by the Military Officers Association of America in Washington, D.C., Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., said 7.5 million more medical appointments have been made under the VA Choice program this year than last.

But he warned that VA Choice needs time to work and chastised veterans groups who oppose it because they see it as a step toward privatizing VA health services.

"A lot of people have said VA Choice is a cop-out," Isakson said. "But you just don't provide health care to 6.5 million veterans by snapping your fingers. We don't have the money in the federal government to provide all the health care to veterans if we wanted to. We have to empower the private sector through programs that work."

VA Choice was launched earlier this year to provide health care to veterans by letting them see a private doctor if they live more than 40 miles from a VA health facility or cannot get an appointment at a VA clinic or hospital within 30 days.

But its rollout has faced challenges: Veterans who live within a 40-mile radius of a clinic often must still travel long distances to reach a VA facility that provides specialty care.

Veterans in rural, sparsely populated areas also face challenges finding a doctor who knows the program; in Alaska, for example, many vets are going without care, according to Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska.

"It's been nothing less than an unmitigated failure," Sullivan said during a Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee field hearing Aug. 25.

Veterans groups have said that privatization of VA health care will be a major talking point in the upcoming fiscal year and in the runup to the 2016 election.

Republican presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson proposed last month that VA health care be eliminated in favor of providing vouchers to veterans for private care, and combining VA services with Tricare, the Defense Department's health program.

Isakson said VA Choice needs "time to work," but added that the program, which last year received $10 billion in funding intended to last through 2017, along with health care provided at VA facilities, has "a long way to go" to reach the goal of providing seamless, quality care to veterans.

He also said the VA faces several challenges in preparing for the long-term care of post-9/11 veterans, to include improving health services for female veterans, mental health treatment, substance abuse and pain management.

He pledged that Congress, VA, veterans groups and the private sector would work together to ensure that VA has the funding and oversight it needs to get the job done.

"We are making progress. We are a long ways from where we want to go, but we are getting there," he said.

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

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