The House unanimously passed an emergency extension to the VA Choice Program by a vote of 414-0 Friday on the second try.
An attempt earlier this week to grant $2 billion in emergency funds to continue the program failed by a 219-186 vote Monday evening, as the bill required a two-thirds majority to pass. This time around, the bill aimed to answer objections by Democratic members of Congress and numerous veterans’ service organizations, namely that the original piece of legislation had the potential to deprive the VA hospital system of funds in order to favor private sector care.
As such, the redrawn bill allocates $2.1 billion for extending the Choice Program and $1.8 billion for VA medical leases and new personnel.
The VA Choice Program was originally implemented to help veterans get care in the wake of the devastating Phoenix VA scandal in 2014, in which it was revealed that veterans died while languishing on secret wait lists for care. The program, then, allows veterans to seek care from the private sector if they live more than 40 miles from the nearest VA facility or have waited at least 30 days for an appointment. From the beginning, the program was beset with complications, such as VA employees simply failing to add veterans waiting for appointments to the Choice Program list.
Concerned Veterans for America, one of the organizations that urged Congress to come up with a solution, applauded the passage of the emergency bill, but criticized the Choice Program as very much flawed and incomplete.
“It’s good that the House has acted to fix the Choice Program budget shortfall to ensure that veterans using the program won’t experience any lapses in care,” CVA policy director Dan Caldwell said. “However, this solution is imperfect and the entire process has been dysfunctional.”
“Secretary Shulkin should have been given the authority to simply shift existing VA funds into the Veterans Choice Program. Unfortunately, some organizations and elected officials used this as an opportunity to start an anti-choice campaign while pursuing unnecessary additional spending.”
Although the bill has only passed through the House so far, Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee chairman Johnny Isakson has already signaled approval. However, there’s no timetable yet available as to when the Senate would vote on the new legislation.
Without a funding fix, the Choice Program could shut down by mid-August.
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