In a fresh warning, Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin said Wednesday there could potentially be delays in providing medical care to tens of thousands of veterans if lawmakers don't act soon to approve billions in emergency funding for the ailing private-sector Choice program.
In a statement, Shulkin said he was heartened by several congressional bills that would provide longer-term fixes to the Department of Veterans Affairs program by giving veterans wider freedom to see private doctors at taxpayers' expense. But pointing to the lack of a clear consensus so far, Shulkin made clear he would be "open" to emergency short-term funding from Congress for now "to ensure our veterans receive uninterrupted care."
"As we have made clear for many months, Congress needs to pass a bill this year," Shulkin said.
His statement comes as lawmakers wrestle over legislation that would overhaul Choice, amid the threat of a government shutdown over the federal budget and disagreements over cost and how much access veterans should have to private doctors.
The Senate Veterans Affairs Committee last week passed a $54 billion bipartisan plan over five years to revamp Choice, which provides $4 billion in emergency short-term funding for Choice and other VA programs for 2018 and also expands a popular caregivers program. But the measure faces some resistance from Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Jerry Moran of Kansas, who are co-sponsoring a separate bill intended to give added access to private care "rather than relying on the VA bureaucracy to determine eligibility criteria."
The House Veterans Affairs Committee, led by Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., meanwhile, has yet to reach agreement on how to pay for the $39 billion cost of its long-term proposal to revamp Choice. Republicans have proposed $2.1 billion in emergency short-term funding for Choice in a separate bill that would also establish a presidential commission to review VA facilities for possible closure, which is opposed by Democrats.
"At this time, the committee is working with the department to review the Choice account and determine when that account will need additional funding," said Tiffany Haverly, Roe's spokeswoman.
In September, the VA warned that Choice could run out of money sooner than expected in late December or early January, even after Congress approved $2.1 billion in emergency funding in August that was intended to last until February. Earlier this year, it began limiting referrals to outside doctors in July when money first began to run low and veterans reported delays in care.
The Choice program currently allows veterans to see private doctors if they must wait more than 30 days for an appointment or travel more than 40 miles to a VA facility. President Donald Trump has pledged to triple the number of veterans "seeing the doctor of their choice," raising concerns among major veterans' groups about "privatization" of VA care.
More than 30 percent of VA appointments are currently made in the private sector.
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