Law boosts VA med­i­cal aid

Trump signs a bill that pro­vides an ad­di­tional $2 bil­lion to help vet­er­ans pay for pri­vate health­care.

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD -

BED­MIN­STER, N.J. — Pres­i­dent Trump has signed an emer­gency spend­ing bill that will pump more than $2 bil­lion into a pro­gram that al­lows vet­er­ans to re­ceive pri­vate med­i­cal care at gov­ern­ment ex­pense.

Trump, who made im­prov­ing vet­er­ans care a cen­tral cam­paign prom­ise, signed the VA Choice and Qual­ity Em­ploy­ment Act while at his New Jer­sey golf club on Sat­ur­day.

The bill, which ad­dresses a bud­get short­fall at the De­part­ment of Vet­er­ans Af­fairs that threat­ened med­i­cal care for thou­sands of vet­er­ans, pro­vides $2.1 bil­lion to con­tinue fund­ing the Vet­er­ans Choice Pro­gram, which al­lows vet­er­ans to seek pri­vate care.

An ad­di­tional $1.8 bil­lion will go to core VA health pro­grams, in­clud­ing 28 leases for new VA med­i­cal fa­cil­i­ties.

“To­day is an­other mile­stone in our work to trans­form the VA, where we’re do­ing record-set­ting busi­ness,” Trump said.

The Vet­er­ans Choice Pro­gram was put in place af­ter a 2014 wait-time scan­dal that was dis­cov­ered at the Phoenix VA hos­pi­tal and else­where through­out the coun­try. Vet­er­ans waited weeks or months for ap­point­ments while phony records cov­ered up the leng thy waits.

The pro­gram al­lows vet­er­ans to re­ceive care from doc­tors out­side the VA sys­tem if they must wait at least 30 days for an ap­point­ment or drive more than 40 miles to a VA fa­cil­ity.

Vet­er­ans Af­fairs Sec­re­tary David Shulkin has warned that with­out leg­isla­tive ac­tion, the Choice pro­gram would run out of money by mid-Au­gust, caus­ing de­lays in health­care for thou­sands of vet­er­ans.

The bill, which was ap­proved unan­i­mously by both houses of Congress, will ex­tend the pro­gram for six months.

Costs will be paid for by trim­ming pen­sions for some Med­i­caid-el­i­gi­ble vet­er­ans and col­lect­ing fees for hous­ing loans.

Vet­er­ans groups ap­plauded the sign­ing of the bill, though some crit­i­cized the de­lay and the cost.

“We’re grate­ful Pres­i­dent Trump is tak­ing de­ci­sive ac­tion to en­sure vet­er­ans us­ing the Choice pro­gram won’t see lapses in their care due to a lack of fund­ing,” said Dan Cald­well, pol­icy di­rec­tor for Con­cerned Vet­er­ans for Amer­ica. “Un­for­tu­nately, this bill took far too long to get to the pres­i­dent’s desk and is $1.8 bil­lion more ex­pen­sive than it needed to be.”

Lead­ers of the House Vet­er­ans Af­fairs Com­mit­tee said the six-month fund­ing plan was ur­gently needed and would give Congress more time to de­bate broader is­sues over the VA’s fu­ture. While the bill may avert a shut­down to the Choice pro­gram, dis­putes over fund­ing may sig­nal big­ger po­lit­i­cal fights to come.

Dur­ing the 2016 cam­paign, Trump crit­i­cized the VA for long wait times and mis­man­age­ment, say­ing he would give vet­er­ans more op­tions in see­ing out­side providers.

Shulkin an­nounced the bud­get short­fall last month, cit­ing un­ex­pected de­mand from vet­er­ans for pri­vate care and poor bud­get plan­ning. To slow spend­ing, the de­part­ment last month in­structed VA med­i­cal cen­ters to limit the num­ber of vet­er­ans it sent to pri­vate doc­tors.

Cur­rently, more than 30% of VA ap­point­ments are in the pri­vate sec­tor, up from less than 20% in 2014. The VA has an an­nual bud­get of about $180 bil­lion.

Jim Wat­son AFP/Getty Im­ages

VA SEC­RE­TARY David Shulkin said the ex­tra fund­ing was cru­cial to sus­tain the Vet­er­ans Choice Pro­gram.

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