Acting VA Secretary pushes Congress to reform Choice program

Matt Saintsing
April 10, 2018 - 3:36 pm

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Last month, federal lawmakers had the chance to pass a series of reforms, including the ever popular Choice program, which allows some veterans to receive health care in the private sector. It didn’t get done.

But now, acting VA secretary Robert Wilkie is calling on Congress help streamline the program that is quickly running out of money.

“It’s time to fix the Choice program—as well as the department’s other non-VA care efforts—once and for all by merging them into a single, streamlined community care program that’s easy to use for veterans and VA employees,” Wilkie said in a statement.

To help combat wait times longer than 30 days, and to help vets who have to travel more than 40 miles to see a VA physician, Wilkie proposes a complete overhaul, that would require converging technologies with private healthcare providers outside of the VA.

To make this possible, Wilkie wants Congress to pass a package of reforms in HR 1625, a bill that former VA Secretary David Shulkin intensely advocated for, which would provide more money for Choice.

The VA’s Choice program was set up in 2014, in the wake of a scandal that led some veterans to die waiting for appointments in a VA clinic in Phoenix, Az. As a temporary program, Choice has been extended by Congress twice.

Shulkin warned Congress last month that if additional money or reforms weren't provided, accounts for Choice could be depleted as early as June. 

"As of March 16th we have $1.1 billion left in the Choice fund that is unobligated," said Shulkin. "At a run rate of about $370 million a month, we will get to probably the first week in June before we start running out of money in the Choice Program."

The measure enjoys bipartisan support with key backing from Senate Committee on Veterans affairs Chairman Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.)

Shulkin penned a New York Times Op-Ed where he claims he was forced out by those in the Trump administration who seek to privatize the VA, a notion that has received push back from the VA and White House.