WASHINGTON — Patients using the Veterans Affairs Choice program for medical care won’t see appointments interrupted in the next two weeks, even if it takes the White House a few extra days to sign new funding for the service into law.
VA officials repeatedly warned this month that up to 30,000 appointments a day could be canceled or delayed if new funding for the four-year-old community care program wasn’t finalized by May 31. The program allows veterans who face significant wait times or travel for VA care to instead visit a private doctor at taxpayer expense.
VA Choice has been controversial since its establishment in the wake of the 2014 VA wait times scandal, but department officials said since its inception it has helped nearly 2 million veterans receive faster care.
Last week, Congress overwhelmingly finalized new legislation (dubbed the “VA Mission Act”) that would phase out the Choice program in favor of a new array of community care offerings, consolidated from seven separate current VA programs.
That work is expected to take a year. To ensure that current Choice patients don’t have their care plans disrupted while that work takes place, lawmakers included $5.2 billion in bridge funding for the existing VA Choice program, expected to last about a year.
But President Donald Trump has yet to sign that measure into law. White House officials have not said when that may happen, even though he already has voiced his support for the legislation.
VA officials on Tuesday said even if that doesn’t take place before their previously stated May 31 deadline, the program “has sufficient funding to continue normal operations uninterrupted until the Mission Act is signed into law.”
Trump must sign the legislation into law in early June or veto the measure, something that could be easily overridden by Congress given the wide margins of passage for the bill in both chambers.
On Tuesday, Trump mentioned the VA Choice program on Twitter as part of a list of issues that were more important than ongoing Department of Justice investigations into his administration.
The Mission Act also includes new rules for expansion of the VA caregiver stipend to veterans who served before 2001 and provisions to start an asset review of all department facilities nationwide with an eye toward closing or replacing aging buildings.
Both of those provisions are expected to take several years to implement.
In a statement after the House passage of the Mission Act, acting VA Secretary Robert Wilkie (who is also the nominee for the permanent secretary post) said the measure “streamlines VA’s community care programs, strengthens health care options for our nation’s veterans … and most importantly centers those decisions on what is best for our veterans.”
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.