Senator calls for emergency funding for VA Choice Program

by Nikki Wentling, Stars and Stripes

WASHINGTON – Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., introduced legislation Tuesday to provide emergency funding for a veterans health care program that is expected to run out of money in early August.

Tester, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, and Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., the committee chairman, called the funding shortfall a crisis during a hearing on veterans health and Tester introduced the “Veterans Access to Care Act of 2017,” which would provide $4.3 billion for the Department of Veterans Affairs to fund the Veterans Choice Program through Sept. 30, 2018, the end of the next fiscal year.

The bill responds to VA Secretary David Shulkin’s announcement to lawmakers in June that the program was quickly and unexpectedly in need of funds. The program pays for veterans, in certain instances, to receive health care from private sector medical facilities.

President Donald Trump’s 2018 budget proposal for the VA requests $3.5 billion for the Choice program in that year. However, Trump’s proposal was created with Shulkin’s estimation that the program would have a $626 million surplus that it could rollover into 2018. Shulkin’s latest guess was the fund would run dry by Aug. 7. Shulkin attributed the faster spending to more veterans using of the program. Eight million community care appointments were made between January and June, which is a nearly 50 percent increase from the same period last year, he said.

Shulkin asked Congress in June for emergency funding or the authority to transfer money into the Choice program from another VA account that also pays for outside health care. He and other VA officials have expressed concern that without action from Congress, more veterans will have to receive care within the VA, creating longer wait times and adding stress to the system that the Choice program was meant to alleviate.

Amy Webb, a policy adviser with the veterans organization AMVETS, told lawmakers Tuesday that some of their members had already seen effects of the funding shortfall. She said veterans appointments within the VA were “stacking up.”

Tester’s bill, however, could face a challenge.

Besides providing $4.3 billion for Choice funding for the rest of fiscal 2017 and 2018, it would mandate the same amount be appropriated to improve in-house VA services, particularly to fund infrastructure progress and filling personnel vacancies. The provision was added in response to a letter that seven large veterans organizations sent to Tester and other lawmakers June 28 that warned against eroding VA resources.

“We remind you that the primary reason the Choice program was created was to address gaps in access due to the lack of clinicians and clinical space necessary to provide timely access to health care for all enrolled veterans,” the letter states. “We call on you… to strengthen and modernize the VA by providing equal emergency funding to address VA’s infrastructure and personnel gaps.”

Also lumped into Tester’s bill is a measure to authorize the VA to open 27 new clinics and research offices across the country, some of which have been held up by Congress for two years.

It also calls on the VA to expand caregiver benefits to veterans injured before 9/11 – a change advocates and other lawmakers have worked for years to push through Congress. Only caregivers for veterans injured post-9/11 are eligible for a VA program that provides medical training, counseling, respite care and monthly stipends. Tester’s bill would have the VA phase in veterans injured pre-9/11, based on need.

“There are some folks who do not believe we should be tackling internal VA care and caregivers in the same legislation as providing funds for the private-sector care,” Tester said.

“Jon’s bill is a starting point for bipartisan negotiations that aim to address the VA’s Choice Program funding shortfall and deficiencies in funding for VA care,” said Dave Kuntz, Tester’s press secretary. “Tester welcomes a process that reflects how the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee does its business – bipartisan, thorough and with input from veterans, advocates and the VA.”

Webb and representatives from Paralyzed Veterans of America, Disabled American Veterans and the American Legion said during the hearing Tuesday that they supported the bill.

“I represent veterans with the most catastrophic disabilities. The Choice program isn’t a fix for everybody,” said Gabriel Stultz, legislative counsel for Paralyzed Veterans of America. “For us, the VA’s internal capacity has to get better with the Choice program.”