President Trump on Wednesday signed legislation (S 544) that temporarily extends Veterans Affairs' (VA) Choice Program.
VA Choice Program details
The VA Choice Program was implemented under a VA reform bill (HR 3230) signed into law in August 2014 following a scandal over long wait times for veterans seeking health care and subsequent cover-up efforts. The program aims to increase veterans' access to care by providing them with federally subsidized care at non-VA facilities. Veterans are eligible to use the program if they have been waiting more than 30 days for a VA health care appointment, if they live 40 miles or farther from a VA facility, or if they face undue burdens accessing care at VA medical centers.
The program, which was set to expire on Aug. 7, has drawn criticism from veterans advocates who have said its eligibility requirements are cumbersome and have cited delays in reimbursements for care provided by private providers.
The bill—which Sens. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), John McCain (R-Ariz.), and Jon Tester (D-Mont.) introduced last month—extends the program until the nearly $1 billion in remaining federal funding allocated for the initiative runs out. The funds likely will be depleted by early next year.
The measure also implements changes intended to hasten reimbursement payments and encourage providers to share patients' medical records under the program.
Policymakers say extension provides more time to revamp VA Choice Program
Policymakers said the extension gives Congress more time to work on legislation to revamp the program. "This new law is a good start, but there is still much work to do," Trump said, adding, "We will fight each and every day to deliver the long-awaited reforms our veterans deserve."
McCain called the legislation "an important first step" that "sends an important message that we will not send our veterans back to the status quo of unending wait-times for appointments and substandard care."
VA Secretary David Shulkin said the bill represents how the department is "making things better" for veterans, adding that VA intends "to continue this progress."
Advocates praise bill, but call for improvements
Veterans advocates praised policymakers for extending the Choice Program, but called for more work to ensure veterans can access care.
Garry Augustine, president of Disabled American Veterans, said, "There's a lot of things in motion now that are moving in a positive direction," but added that veterans "need more doctors, they need nurses."
Mark Lucas, executive director of Concerned Veterans for America, said, "The Choice Program was passed as a quick fix to the wait list manipulation scandal that broke three years ago," and, "while it's helped, too many veterans still are forced to seek care at failing VA facilities." Lucas continued, "Congress now has some time to work with [Shulkin] on broader, more permanent choice reforms that will truly put the veteran at the center of their health care and remove VA bureaucrats as the middlemen" (Boyer, Washington Times, 4/19; Lambert, Reuters, 4/19; Superville, AP/Sacramento Bee, 4/19).
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