House fills VA bud­get gap de­spite vets’ ob­jec­tions

The Denver Post - - NEWS - By Hope Yen Den­ver Post staff writer David Migoya con­trib­uted to this re­port.

WASHINGTON» The House re­jected Mon­day a plan to al­low the Depart­ment of Vet­er­ans Af­fairs to shift $2 bil­lion from other pro­grams to cover a sud­den bud­get short­fall in its Choice pro­gram of pri­vate­sec­tor care fol­low­ing op­po­si­tion from vet­er­ans’ groups.

The vote was 219-186 on a bill to pro­vide a six-month fund­ing fix, fall­ing short of the two-thirds ma­jor­ity needed to pass. House Demo­cratic Leader Nancy Pelosi joined other mem­bers of her party in voic­ing ob­jec­tions af­ter vet­er­ans ex­pressed con­cerns about cuts to other parts of the VA. The Choice pro­gram of­fers vet­er­ans fed­er­ally paid med­i­cal care out­side the VA and is a pri­or­ity of Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump.

Vet­er­ans’ groups are seek­ing ad­di­tional money for Choice and core VA pro­grams.

House ne­go­tia­tors now planned to meet with the Se­nate, where law­mak­ers were craft­ing a sep­a­rate pro­posal.

Put in place af­ter a 2014 wait-time scan­dal at the Phoenix VA hos­pi­tal, the Choice pro­gram al­lows vet­er­ans to re­ceive care from out­side doc­tors if they must wait 30 days or more for an ap­point­ment or drive more than 40 miles to a VA fa­cil­ity. VA Sec­re­tary David Shulkin has warned that with­out con­gres­sional ac­tion Choice would run out of money by mid-Au­gust, caus­ing dis­rup­tions in med­i­cal care to thou­sands of pa­tients.

Rep. Tim Walz of Min­nesota, the top Demo­crat on the House Vet­er­ans Com­mit­tee, crit­i­cized the re­quired spend­ing off­sets and urged mem­bers to op­pose the plan. He sug­gested it would be folly to ig­nore the views of ma­jor vet­er­ans’ groups and pass a flawed plan, only for it to be re­jected in the Se­nate.

“The fact that Repub­li­can lead­er­ship is re­quir­ing off­sets for di­rect pa­tient care for vet­er­ans is trou­bling,” Walz said.

Rep. Phil Roe of Ten­nessee, chair­man of the vet­er­ans’ panel, had ar­gued quick ac­tion was needed to ad­dress the short­fall. He re­jected de­scrip­tions of the pro­posal as “pri­va­ti­za­tion.”

Sen. Johnny Isak­son of Ge­or­gia, the Repub­li­can chair­man of the Se­nate Vet­er­ans Af­fairs Com­mit­tee, has been work­ing to reach a com­pro­mise and his of­fice de­clined to com­ment. The panel’s top Demo­crat, Jon Tester of Mon­tana, in­tro­duced a bill this month that would pro­vide equal lev­els of ex­tra fund­ing for Choice and VA pro­grams.

Eight ma­jor vet­er­ans’ groups ex­pressed op­po­si­tion to the House plan, voic­ing dis­plea­sure af­ter it was qui­etly re­leased last Fri­day af­ter days of closed­door ne­go­ti­a­tions.

At its na­tional con­ven­tion in New Or­leans Mon­day, the leader of Vet­er­ans of For­eign Wars took aim at Trump over the House plan, de­scrib­ing the pro­posal as un­ac­cept­able pri­va­ti­za­tion. VFW Na­tional Com­man­der Brian Duffy said it would lead to higher out of pocket costs for vet­er­ans and harm their care. VFW mem­bers in the con­ven­tion hall were heard chant­ing “No” to the plan.

“It would vi­o­late the cam­paign prom­ise that Pres­i­dent Trump told our con­ven­tion a year ago — a prom­ise that the VA sys­tem would re­main a public sys­tem be­cause it is a public trust,” Duffy said.

Loss of fund­ing for Choice would be felt strongly across Colorado, ac­cord­ing Bernie Ro­goff, a vol­un­teer vet­er­ans ad­vo­cate who serves on a pa­tient-care team at the Den­ver VA Med­i­cal Cen­ter.

“It would be dev­as­tat­ing,” said Ro­goff, who is also a board mem­ber of the United Vet­er­ans Com­mit­tee, which works on a va­ri­ety of is­sues af­fect­ing vet­er­ans.

Al­though it was not im­me­di­ately known how many vet­er­ans in Colorado make use of the pro­gram, the Den­ver re­gion had been known for its ex­ten­sive wait­ing times, a pri­mary rea­son for a vet to opt for the Choice pro­gram.

It “has been very ef­fec­tive and has made it eas­ier for peo­ple to get into the pro­gram quickly,” Ro­goff said.

Separately, the House also voted Mon­day to sig­nif­i­cantly ex­pand col­lege aid for mil­i­tary vet­er­ans, re­mov­ing a 15-year time limit to tap into ed­u­ca­tional aid and in­creas­ing ben­e­fits for thou­sands in the Na­tional Guard and Re­serve. It was the big­gest ex­pan­sion of the GI Bill in a decade.

Vet­er­ans’ groups cheered the pro­posed ex­pan­sion to the GI Bill but drew a line with Choice. They see the House pro­posal as set­ting dan­ger­ous prece­dent be­cause it takes money from core VA ben­e­fits to pay for pri­vate-sec­tor care. The plan would trim pen­sions for some vet­er­ans and col­lect fees for hous­ing loans guar­an­teed by the VA.

“Vet­er­ans’ health care ben­e­fits have al­ready been ‘paid for’ through the ser­vice and sac­ri­fice of the men and women who wore our na­tion’s uni­form,” the groups said.

They in­clude AMVETS, Iraq and Afghanistan Vet­er­ans of Amer­ica, Dis­abled Amer­i­can Vet­er­ans, Viet­nam Vet­er­ans of Amer­ica, Mil­i­tary Of­fi­cers As­so­ci­a­tion of Amer­ica, Mil­i­tary Order of the Pur­ple Heart and Wounded War­rior Project.

Shulkin an­nounced the bud­get short­fall last month, cit­ing un­ex­pected de­mand from vet­er­ans for pri­vate care as well as 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.

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