The House has voted against allocating an emergency $2 billion dollars to extend a program that allows veterans to seek care outside of the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) health system.
With a vote of 219-186 Monday evening, legislators blocked the emergency extension of the VA Choice Program, as the bill required a two-thirds majority to pass.
In June, VA Secretary David Shulkin admitted that the program was rapidly running out of funds. Currently, the program is set to close down in August because of a major budget shortfall.
The move to vote against the emergency extension disappointed Maryland GOP Rep. Phil Roe, chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, who anticipated he had adequately addressed all objections prior to the vote.
“Secretary Shulkin has said before the committee that Choice running out of money would be a disaster for America’s veterans, and that without this funding wait times would go up,” Roe said in a statement after Monday evening’s vote. “Already this week, the House is slated to consider a bill to increase appropriations for the department by 5 percent, leaving Choice as the only VA program at risk of being depleted of critical funding.”
“This was a bipartisan agreement, and I’m disappointed the concerns raised on the House floor today were not mentioned during what I thought was an open and honest conversation,” Roe said. “I will continue to fight tirelessly to ensure the Choice Fund does not run out of money so veterans can continue to access care. I appreciate and understand that some Veterans Service Organizations raised concerns with this legislation to fund Choice, and my door is always open to hear their concerns and ideas to make VA work for veterans.”
The cost of continuing the program by six months runs approximately $2 billion, which would have at least partially come out of the pocket of other programs run by the VA, making the bill the target of opposition from numerous Democratic members of Congress and veterans’ service organizations.
“This legislation explicitly prioritizes the private sector at the VA’s expense,” California Democratic Rep. Mark Takano said on the House floor earlier Monday. “This is not an acceptable way forward.”
“Veterans’ service organizations are speaking out because they know what’s at stake,” Takano added.
However, Minnesota Democratic Rep. Tim Walz strenuously argued against turning the debate into privatization vs. non-privatization.
A coalition of eight veterans’ organizations sent out a letter Saturday, saying that they oppose “legislation that includes funding only for the ‘Choice’ program which provides additional community care options, but makes no investment in VA and uses ‘savings’ from other veterans benefits or services to pay for the Choice program.”
Concerned Veterans for America, a veterans’ advocacy organization that is in favor of extending the program, said that opposition to emergency funding is a plan to end choice for veterans.
“In our minds, this is a pretty transparent attempt to kill choice,” Concerned Veterans for America policy director Dan Caldwell told The Daily Caller News Foundation. According to Caldwell, an appropriations bill is already in the works to boost the VA’s traditional provider network to the tune of $2 billion dollars.
How the VA choice program experienced such a major budget shortfall isn’t exactly clear, though part of the reason may simply be an unanticipated increase in referrals.
The VA plans a full overhaul of the choice program in the coming months.
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