WASHINGTON (AP) — Congress sent President Donald Trump legislation to temporarily extend a troubled program widening veterans' access to private-sector care, as the Department of Veterans Affairs prepares a broader revamp of health services.
Legislation passed by voice vote in the House on Wednesday would allow the VA to operate its Choice program until money in that account runs out, expected early next year. Without the legislation, the program will expire on Aug. 7 with nearly $1 billion left over.
VA Secretary David Shulkin says the money is needed for stopgap services while he puts together a longer-term plan to allow veterans to receive private health care more easily. That proposal is expected this fall.
The Choice program was put in place after a 2014 wait-time scandal at the Phoenix VA medical center in which some veterans died. Intended to provide veterans more timely care, it allows them to go outside the VA network in cases where they had to wait more than 30 days for an appointment or drive more than 40 miles to a facility. Yet the program often encountered long wait times of its own.
The bill calls for fixes to alleviate some of the problems, by helping speed up VA payments and promote greater sharing of medical records. The Senate passed the measure on Monday.
Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., who sponsored the House version, said the bill would give veterans "certainty and continuity of care while we work with the Trump administration to develop a strategic plan that ... utilizes the strengths of both VA and community health providers." Congress would need to approve a broader overhaul of VA services.
Major veterans' organizations and Democrats do not oppose a temporary extension of the Choice program, but they are closely watching the subsequent VA revamp of the program for signs the Trump administration may seek greater privatization. Those groups generally oppose that as a threat to the viability of VA medical centers. During the presidential campaign, Trump pledged to give veterans freedom to seek care "at a private service provider of their own choice."
"We believe in improving VA to the point where nearly every veteran that has a choice would overwhelmingly choose VA," said John Raughter, spokesman for the American Legion, the nation's largest veterans group.
Currently, more than 1 million out of 9 million veterans in the VA system use some Choice care, with agency data pointing to even greater use this year. Shulkin says he would like to expand veterans' access to private care by eliminating the Choice program's current 30-day, 40-mile restrictions. At the same time, he wants the VA to work in partnership by handling all the scheduling and "customer service," something that congressional auditors say could be unwieldy and expensive.
A new White House Office of American Innovation led by Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, also is now examining ways to improve the VA.
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