By Hope Yen
WASHINGTON — 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 Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Jerry Moran, R-Kan., 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.
In September, the VA warned Choice could run out of money sooner than expected in late December or early January.