Funds run­ning out on VA pro­gram that 1 mil­lion rely on for health care

USA TODAY US Edition - - NEWS - Dono­van Slack

WASHINGTON – More than a mil­lion vet­er­ans an­nu­ally rely on a Depart­ment of Vet­er­ans Af­fairs pro­gram to get pri­vate-sec­tor med­i­cal care at VA ex­pense, a pro­gram set to run out of fund­ing in two weeks, ac­cord­ing to data pro­vided to USA TO­DAY.

Pop­u­lous states with large vet­eran pop­u­la­tions, such as Texas, Cal­i­for­nia, Florida and Ari­zona, notched the high­est num­bers of vet­er­ans who have used the Choice pro­gram since it was cre­ated in 2014 af­ter vet­er­ans died wait­ing for med­i­cal care at the Phoenix VA hos­pi­tal.

More ru­ral or re­mote states, such as Alaska, Hawaii and Mon­tana, showed higher per­cent­ages of their vet­er­ans re­lied on Choice, which al­lows vet­er­ans to get VA-funded health care in the pri­vate sec­tor if they have to wait longer than 30 days for a VA ap­point­ment or live more than 40 miles from a VA health care fa­cil­ity.

In all, 2 mil­lion vet­er­ans have used the pro­gram since its in­cep­tion, in­clud­ing 550,000 this year.

The House passed leg­is­la­tion Wed­nes­day that would make the pro­gram per­ma­nent and pro­vide the nec­es­sary fund­ing, and the Se­nate could take the mea­sure up next week.

The bill drew op­po­si­tion from Rep. Tim Walz of Min­nesota, the high­es­trank­ing Democrat on the House VA com­mit­tee, who said it could un­der­mine the VA by di­vert­ing money to the pri­vate sec­tor. But more than 100 Democrats joined Repub­li­cans to pass the bill.

The leg­is­la­tion would com­bine the Choice pro­gram with six oth­ers that al­low vet­er­ans to get pri­vate-sec­tor med­i­cal care at govern­ment ex­pense and task the VA with cre­at­ing rules for ob­tain­ing out­side care. It would cre­ate a com­mis­sion to as­sess VA as­sets and make rec­om­men­da­tions about which med­i­cal fa­cil­i­ties are worth re­pair­ing, where new ones might be needed and where oth­ers might be shut­tered and pri­vate-sec­tor care pro­vided.

Mon­tana Sen. Jon Tester, the high­est-rank­ing Democrat on the Se­nate VA com­mit­tee, said he sup­ports the mea­sure. So do more than two dozen vet­er­ans’ groups, in­clud­ing the Vet­er­ans of For­eign Wars, Dis­abled Amer­i­can Vet­er­ans and the Amer­i­can Le­gion.

“We strongly en­cour­age the U.S. Se­nate to pass this im­por­tant leg­is­la­tion swiftly,” said Denise Ro­han, na­tional com­man­der for the Le­gion.

Fed­eral em­ployee unions are dead set against the bill and urged law­mak­ers to re­ject it.

“This leg­is­la­tion kicks the door wide open to VA pri­va­ti­za­tion, no mat­ter what its sup­port­ers claim,” Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Govern­ment Em­ploy­ees Pres­i­dent David Cox said.

If the mea­sure passes the Se­nate, which is likely, it would be a sig­nif­i­cant leg­isla­tive vic­tory for Pres­i­dent Trump, who re­peat­edly promised dur­ing his cam­paign to over­haul the VA and ex­pand vet­er­ans’ op­tions to get VA-funded care from the pri­vate sec­tor.

“Who will stand with our Great Vets, care­givers, and Vet­er­ans Ser­vice Or­ga­ni­za­tions?” Trump tweeted be­fore the House vote Wed­nes­day. “Must get Choice passed by Me­mo­rial Day!”

If the leg­is­la­tion fails, Congress could pass a stop­gap mea­sure to keep the pro­gram funded past May 31, when it is ex­pected to run out of money. Law­mak­ers have passed two such mea­sures in the past year.

If they don’t, the Choice data from re­cent years il­lus­trate how many vet­er­ans could be stuck wait­ing again or trav­el­ing long dis­tances for VA care with­out the pro­gram.

Though the VA was able to ac­com­mo­date vet­er­ans within 30 days at its med­i­cal fa­cil­i­ties for 92% of ap­point­ments as of March 1, more than 740,000 vet­er­ans waited longer than a month for VA ap­point­ments, ac­cord­ing to VA statis­tics.

“This leg­is­la­tion kicks the door wide open to VA pri­va­ti­za­tion, no mat­ter what its sup­port­ers claim.” David Cox Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Govern­ment Em­ploy­ees

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