Tentative deal reached to save Veterans Choice program

  • Rep. Annie Kuster talks to members of the media following a campaign stop with Democratic vice presidential candidate Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia in Concord on Friday, Aug. 12, 2016. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz / Monitor file

  • Carol Shea Porter at the ‘Monitor’ editorial board Thursday, October 27, 2016. GEOFF FORESTER

Monitor staff
Published: 7/27/2017 12:07:26 AM

Congressional leaders have reportedly reached a deal to keep a federal program that pays for veterans to get private medical care from shuttering after House members failed to meet the two-thirds majority needed to approve $2 billion in emergency funding earlier this week.

Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin said in a statement Wednesday afternoon that leadership in the House and Senate Veterans Affairs committees had reached a new deal to keep afloat the Veterans Choice program, which was set to run out of money early next month.

“In a truly bipartisan way, they have put together legislation that provides $2.1 billion to avoid a disruption in the Veterans Choice program and strengthens VA’s internal capacity by authorizing 28 major medical leases,” Shulkin said.

He added that the legislation would “make it easier to hire the most sought after medical specialists, as well as establish innovative human resources programs to strengthen workforce management.”

Created in 2014 with support from both parties following scandals about manipulated wait times at Veterans Affairs centers nationwide, the Veterans Choice program sought to give veterans options in the private market while the VA worked to implement reforms. It’s of particular importance in New Hampshire, which doesn’t have its own full-service VA hospital.

The program – which has been beset with problems of its own – has nonetheless grown in popularity, and is set to run out of money Aug. 7.

House Republicans had initially put forward a plan that would have diverted $2 billion from elsewhere in the VA budget to fund a six-month extension to the choice program.

That measure ran into opposition from several major veterans organizations and many House Democrats, who objected to using funds from the VA itself rather than allocating new money to pay for the extension. The move would weaken the VA, they argued, and encourage privatization of additional VA functions. It failed to pass the House on Monday.

New Hampshire’s representatives in the House, Annie Kuster and Carol Shea-Porter, both Democrats, voted against the original proposal. Both Kuster and Shea-Porter plan to vote for the compromise plan, their respective spokespersons said Wednesday night.

“I’m committed to working across the aisle to improve and reauthorize the Choice Program but unfortunately the legislation considered (Monday) evening would not have improved the Veterans Health Administration at a time when we need to be bolstering support for our veterans,” Kuster had said in a statement after Monday’s vote.

“While I have fought for months to reform and reauthorize the Choice program, tonight’s bill was not ready for prime time, which is why it was opposed by all major Veterans Service Organizations, why I could not vote ‘yes’ in its current form, and why the House rejected the bill with a bipartisan vote,” Shea-Porter said in a statement Monday.

Concord VFW Post 1631 Quartermaster Paul Lloyd said the Choice program had helped fill a need in the state – but wasn’t without its troubles.

“We have had both really good experiences and really not-so-good experiences with the Choice program,” he said.

In early July, 40 members of Congress, including Shea-Porter, signed a letter to VA Secretary David Shulkin warning that delayed payments from the department to medical providers were leading to credit problems for veterans, who were being pursued for unpaid bills the VA was supposed to pay for.

According to the letter, the VA had received more than 57,000 calls as of May regarding credit report problems for veterans using the Choice program.

Lloyd said he’d spoken to up to a dozen veterans himself who had complained about being harassed by collection agencies or getting dings on their credit reports when medical providers went after them for unpaid bills after the VA failed to pay on time.

The Veterans of Foreign Wars was among the veterans advocacy organizations that lobbied against the measure that was voted down on Monday over concerns that taking $2 billion from elsewhere in the VA to fund the Choice program would hurt the department’s ability to implement reforms.

(Lola Duffort can be reached at 369-3321 or lduffort@cmonitor.com.)

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