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VA facing another shortfall in Choice funding

VA Secretary David Shulkin (White House/Flickr)

Funds could be depleted by late May for a Department of Veterans Affairs program that allows veterans to receive private-sector medical care, VA Secretary David Shulkin said Thursday.

As of March 6, about $1.1 billion remained of the $2.1 billion in emergency funding that Congress approved for the Veterans Choice program in late December, Shulkin told lawmakers during a House budget hearing. If Congress doesn’t authorize more funding soon, the approximately one million veterans who use the program could be affected, he said.

“We will not have enough money in 2018 to be able to make it all the way through the end of the fiscal year,” Shulkin said. “We would have to start making management decisions to be able to reduce our spending in the Choice program.”

In his written testimony, Shulkin pleaded: “The time to act is now, and we need your help.”

The Choice account has come close to bankruptcy multiple times in the past two years, and each time Congress has passed emergency funding measures within days of the program running out of money. The uncertainty over funding caused appointment requests to accumulate, and some veterans’ treatment was interrupted, veterans groups said at the time.

It’s a cycle that VA officials, lawmakers and veterans advocates want to end.

“The program’s funding has gone from one shutdown risk to the next,” said Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa., the chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that held the VA budget hearing Thursday.

The Choice program was created in 2014 in response to the VA wait-time scandal in order to ease demand on VA services. Since then, it has grown in popularity. According to the latest VA data, 36 percent of VA appointments in fiscal 2017 were made through the Choice program.

Citing burdensome regulations governing the program and a lack of steady funding, Shulkin has been working with Congress for a year to overhaul the Choice program.

But legislation has been stalled in Congress for months over disagreements about how aggressively veteran’s health care should be pushed into the private sector.

Many major veterans organizations, fearing a “privatization” of the VA, are weary of an aggressive push of veterans’ health care into the private sector. Shulkin has reiterated since his appointment as VA secretary that he wants to invest in the VA and outside care, and he’s promised he will not privatize veterans’ health care.

Some veterans groups believe that White House insiders want to see more drastic changes to veterans’ care. Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, D-Fla., asked Shulkin on Thursday whether anyone in Trump’s administration was pressuring him to privatize the department.

“The president is very, very committed to improving services for veterans,” Shulkin responded. “There is no pressure to privatize. There is pressure to fix the system.”

Shulkin has been at odds for the past month with political appointees assigned to the VA, and it has led to uncertainty over whether he’ll remain in his job. He has stated multiple times that there are people within the agency who have an agenda different than his.

Shulkin said Thursday that he thought the VA was getting back on track, but some lawmakers believe the controversy has deadlocked reforms to the Choice program. Speaking to various veterans organizations during a public hearing Wednesday, Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., the ranking Democrat on the veterans affairs committee, expressed urgency in moving the legislation forward.

“We need to move that bill,” he said. “Dysfunction in the administration has hindered our ability to move forward. It’s jeopardizing the ability of the VA to serve you.”

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© 2018 the Stars and Stripes

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