McCain Introduces Legislation To Make VA Choice Program Permanent

Senator John McCain (Reuters/Carlos Barria)

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Jonah Bennett Contributor
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Even though the VA is raiding the Choice Program to the tune of $3.3 billion, GOP Sen. John McCain introduced new legislation Thursday to make sure that the program becomes permanent.

McCain was one of the initial proponents of the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014, which came about following reports of manipulated waitlists, endless delays and problematic behavior at VA facilities across the country, Stars and Stripes reports.

“Unfortunately, the VA has been slow and reluctant to implement this program since the law’s enactment,” McCain said in a statement. “It has failed to adequately distribute and educate qualified veterans about the Choice Card, restricted some veterans’ eligibility to receive it, and tried to move critical funds away from the program altogether.”

The VA is not terribly fond of the three-year pilot program, which allows veterans to seek private medical care if they have waited over 30 days for an appointment or are located over 40 miles away from the nearest VA facility. Members of Congress and veterans’ organizations have accused the VA of botching the program to give the impression that it isn’t working.

The VA recently posted a fiscal shortfall and requested for Congress to allow the department to raid the Choice Program of $3.3 billion, in order to ensure that hospitals stay running. Congress complied. (RELATED: Congress Permits VA To Raid $3.3 Billion From Choice Card Program)

As it stands now, the program is experimental, but McCain’s new bill hopes to cement it in permanently and completely remove any distance requirements, making all veterans eligible for private care.

Reactions were somewhat mixed from veterans’ groups, as the legislation seemed to have come almost out of nowhere.

“We support the bill’s intent,” Sherman Gillums Jr., deputy executive director of Paralyzed Veterans of America, told Stars and Stripes. “But if it requires VA to erode its infrastructure or rob Peter to pay Paul to fund permanent Choice Care, we won’t support it.”

Others, however, argued that the legislation isn’t heavy-handed enough.

“Simply making the (choice) program permanent will not overcome bureaucratic resistance, and thus meaningful, long-term reform, such as the Veterans Independence Act, is necessary,” Dan Caldwell, legislative director at Concerned Veterans for America, told Stars and Stripes.

On Thursday, VA Secretary Robert McDonald lashed out at Concerned Veterans for America, telling reporters they “have to understand the political nature” of the organization and adding departmental officials are “not in favor of privatizing the VA.”

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