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Today, an Easily Overlooked Vote on Choice in Veterans Health Care

From the first Morning Jolt of the week, a look at maintaining veterans’ choices in health care, one of those things that Congress is doing that it seems almost no one is noticing, along with those new sanctions on Russia. (Boy, that election meddling is not turning out the way Vladimir Putin expected, huh?)

Today, an Easily Overlooked Vote on Choice in Veterans Health Care:

Remember the Veterans Choice program, discussed in my recent article about reforms at the Department of Veterans Affairs?

In 2014, in response to the scandal of veterans in Phoenix and other locations facing interminable waits for needed care, Congress and the Obama administration established the Veterans Choice Program (VCP), allowing veterans who live more than 40 miles from a VA health clinic or who face a wait of more than 30 days for an appointment to get treatment from non-VA facilities. The VCP was intended as a pilot program and scheduled to end this August, but earlier this year President Trump signed legislation extending its duration until funding runs out.

Demand for the program has increased rapidly, almost a 50 percent increase over last year’s number of appointments. In the first six months, veterans made 8 million community care appointments through the program. Current funding is projected to run out by the second week of August.

Today the House is scheduled to vote on a bill that will provide another $2 billion in funding for the program by diverting funds from other parts of the VA budget.

Eight veterans groups issued a statement opposing the legislation, contending it’s just a band-aid solution: AMVETS, (Disabled American Veterans), Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Association, Military Officers Association of America, Military Order of the Purple Heart, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Vietnam Veterans of America and the Wounded Warrior Project.

As we have repeatedly told House leaders in person this week, and in a jointly-signed letter on June 28, we 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.

In order to ensure that veterans can receive necessary care without interruption, we call on House leaders to take the time necessary to work together with Senate leaders to develop acceptable “choice” funding legislation that not only fills the current funding gap, but also addresses urgent VA infrastructure and resource needs that led to creation of the “choice” program in the first place.

That’s a lot of scare quotes. But another veterans group, Concerned Veterans for America, is supporting the bill, seeing it as the best possible temporary solution as Congress considers bigger changes. (Keep in mind some groups on the Left are wary about the Veterans Choice program, seeing it as a backdoor effort to promote the privatization of veterans care and/or reducing the government’s role in getting veterans care.)

“The Veterans Choice Program isn’t perfect, but many veterans depend on it to access care in the private sector when the VA fails them,” said CVA Executive Director Mark Lucas. “Chairman Roe’s proposal to quickly solve the program’s budget shortfall is pragmatic, fiscally responsible and will prevent lapses in care in upcoming weeks. Opponents of this measure are transparently using this situation as an opportunity to advance their own anti-choice agenda instead of doing what’s best for veterans. It’s critical that Congress take decisive action to keep the choice program afloat until more permanent choice reforms are in place and we urge elected officials to vote in favor of the House solution today.”