By Matt Saintsing
A program that allows veterans to receive healthcare in their community if they face long wait times at the VA will come to an end, unless Congress acts by Aug. 7.
Under the current Veterans Choice program, veterans without an appointment for 30 days, or if they live more than 40 miles from a VA healthcare facility, can be seen by a private doctor locally. VA Secretary David Shulkin testified in June that the Choice Program would run out of funds in early August—a consequence of being an ever more popular program among veterans.
The VA needs to secure more funds from Congress, or the ability to pull funds from other programs—an authority they currently do not have—before the Aug. 7 deadline to keep the program going. Funding for Choice is expected to come up during a meeting of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee on Tuesday.
Also likely during the same Senate meeting is a discussion on a new Choice Program. The new plan is expected to be unveiled Tuesday, and would expand the Choice program by lifting some restrictions.
Shulkin has said he hopes to push a reformed version of Choice by the end of the fiscal year in September. In President Trump’s proposed budget $2.9 billion are set aside for the program in 2018, and $3.5 billion in 2019.
Initially, the department proposed paying for Choice by cutting the Individual Unemployability program, which allows the VA to pay some veterans disability compensation at the full 100% rate, despite not being rated at that level by the VA. Veterans and veterans service organizations forced the VA to back away from cutting Individual Unemployability to pay for Choice in June.
The window for the VA to close this financial gap is dwindling as Congress would need to release more funds before they leave for a month-long recess in August.