Bud­get deal ad­vances pri­vate care for vets backed by pres­i­dent

Orlando Sentinel - - NATION & WORLD - By Hope Yen

WASHINGTON — Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s ex­pan­sion of a pro­gram aimed at steer­ing more vet­er­ans to pri­vate health care is get­ting an $8.9 bil­lion boost as part of the mas­sive gov­ern­ment spend­ing bill ap­proved by the House, set­ting up a po­ten­tial bat­tle over the di­rec­tion of the Vet­er­ans Af­fairs De­part­ment.

The deal pro­vides $81 bil­lion for VA med­i­cal care to treat 9.3 mil­lion vet­er­ans, in­clud­ing the $8.9 bil­lion for pri­vate care un­der a law passed last year ex­pand­ing the Vet­er­ans Choice pro­gram. An ad­di­tional $11.3 bil­lion is on tap for pri­vate care in 2021.

Ma­jor vet­er­ans groups have cau­tioned against “can­ni­bal­iz­ing” VA pro­grams to pay for Choice, which they worry could lead to pri­va­ti­za­tion of VA.

The pro­gram gives vet­er­ans wider ac­cess to pri­vate care when they have en­dured lengthy wait times or the treat­ment was not what they had ex­pected. The price tag could soar as the ex­panded pro­gram takes hold, putting the VA at risk of fu­ture bud­get short­falls.

Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial con­tenders in­clud­ing Ver­mont Sen. Bernie San­ders and Mas­sachusetts Sen. El­iz­a­beth War­ren have urged rein­vest­ment in the VA over ex­panded pri­vate care op­tions.

Former Vice Pres­i­dent Joe Bi­den and Pete But­tigieg, mayor of South Bend, In­di­ana, have said they will roll back or change some of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s rules on Choice.

“As the increasing need for med­i­cal care by wounded, ill and in­jured vet­er­ans and their fam­ily care­givers is be­ing forced to fit un­der tight bud­get caps, we are con­cerned nec­es­sary re­sources could be shifted away from the VA health care sys­tem, which in­de­pen­dent re­search has shown pro­vides higher qual­ity care than the pri­vate sec­tor,” said Joy Ilem, na­tional leg­isla­tive di­rec­tor for Dis­abled Amer­i­can Vet­er­ans.

“While com­mu­nity care pro­grams are vi­tal to fill and sup­ple­ment VA in many lo­ca­tions, we be­lieve the value to vet­er­ans and the tax­payer of ev­ery dol­lar spent in the VA health care sys­tem is greater than if it were spent in the com­mu­nity,” she said.

House Democrats had pushed for Choice money to be ex­empt from bud­get caps, to avoid the risk of cuts to core VA pro­grams.

How­ever, the money was kept un­der bud­get caps af­ter the White House

The added money for Choice is part of a 6% in­crease to the to­tal VA bud­get for the fis­cal year end­ing next Septem­ber.

The spend­ing bill, which still needs Se­nate ap­proval, also re­quires the VA to re­port to Congress within 30 days the rea­sons for a two-year de­lay in an­nounc­ing whether it plans to pro­vide health care cov­er­age for ad­di­tional Viet­nam War vet­er­ans ex­posed to Agent Or­ange. re­sisted.

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