Emergency funding for a program that allows eligible veterans to receive health care in their community was signed into law on Saturday.
The measure, signed by President Donald Trump in Bedminster, N.J., provides $3.9 billion to the Department of Veterans Affairs to keep the Veterans Choice Program afloat. The deal struck by Democrats and Republicans in Congress also authorizes the VA to open 28 new healthcare facilities and streamlines the VA’s hiring process.
Congress was alerted to the unexpected funding shortfalls of the Choice program in June when VA Secretary Shulkin warned that money would run out by mid-August. The package includes $2.1 billion, which will be used to fund Choice for the next six months.
Currently, veterans who live more than 40 miles from a VA healthcare facility, or those who cannot get an appointment within 30 days, are able to seek out medical care in their community through the Choice program.
“I want to thank our veterans service organizations who were there helping us get this important legislation passed,” Shulkin said. Shulkin highlighted the popularity of the program saying that 15 million appointments have been authorized by the VA through the Choice program so far this year—a number up by four million from this time last year.
“This is really a temporary fix.”
“We have more work to do with Congress. We have to collapse eight different ways of paying for community care into a single program, and simplify it.”
Trump singled out three Republicans in his remarks Saturday. Leaders of the House and Senate Veterans Affairs committees, Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., and Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., respectively received praise from Trump, along with Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev. “Phil, Johnny, and Dean worked very, very hard to get it through,” Trump said.
“It was very, very tough for reasons that I guess I understand, but it was not easy,” said Trump. “Also, by the way, I can also say others, and even some Democrats.” “This bill will ensure veterans will continue to have the ability to see the doctor of their choice.”
Shulkin returned to the microphone at Trump’s invitation to mention Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn, the ranking members of the Veterans Affairs committees.
With the signing, the VA is authorized to open two new clinics in Gainesville, Fla., and new clinics in Pike County, Ga., Pittsburgh, Pa., Birmingham, Ala., and Santa Rosa and Oxnard, Calif.
In addition, replacement clinics are to be opened in Ann Arbor, Mich., Charleston, S.C., Corpus Christi, Texas, Daytona Beach, Fla., Fredericksburg and Hampton Roads, Va., Indianapolis, Ind., Jacksonville, Fla., Missoula, Mont., Northern Colorado, Ocala, Fla., Pike County, Ga., Pittsburgh, Pa., Portland, Maine, Raleigh, N.C., Rochester, N.Y., Tampa and Lakeland, Fla., Terre Haute, Ind., and Rapid City, S.D.
Two other veterans-related bills are on Trump’s desk. On Friday, the House sent a bill to reform the appeals process for veterans filing for benefits claims. The ‘Forever GI Bill’—the largest expansion of GI Bill benefits in nearly a decade—was sent to Trump August 2.