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VOL. 41 | NO. 29 | Friday, July 21, 2017

House moves to fill VA's budget gap despite vets' objections

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WASHINGTON (AP) — The Republican-led House is moving 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 private-sector care. But the plan was meeting resistance from many Democrats following stiff protests from veterans' groups.

It remained uncertain if the bill would attract two-thirds of the vote needed to pass.

Lawmakers are expected to vote later Monday on a bill to provide a six-month funding fix to Choice, which offers veterans federally paid medical care outside the VA and is a priority of President Donald Trump. 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. Veterans' groups are asking that additional emergency money be invested in the VA as well as Choice.

Rep. Tim Walz of Minnesota, the top Democrat on the House Veterans Committee, criticized the planned cuts to other parts of the VA and cited the extraordinary level of opposition from veterans' groups. He urged House members to take another day to work out a bipartisan agreement with the Senate, which he said would reject the House plan.

"Members of my caucus as it stands right now cannot go forward," Walz said.

Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia, the 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 earlier this month that would provide equal levels of extra funding for Choice and VA programs.

Speaking at its national convention in New Orleans Monday, the leader of Veterans of Foreign Wars took aim at President Donald 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 House 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.

Also being voted on by the House later Monday was a bill 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.

Veterans' groups cheer the proposed expansion to the GI Bill but are drawing 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. Eight major veterans' groups including VFW issued a joint statement over the weekend, expressing their opposition and displeasure after the House plan was quietly released last Friday after days of closed-door negotiations.

During the negotiations, House Republican leaders insisted on spending offsets and Democrats tentatively agreed to a temporary fix that involved shifting $2 billion to Choice.

"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.

"The lesson for Congress will be learned the hard way when our members express their voice at the ballot box," said Paul Rieckhoff, CEO and founder of IAVA.

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.

Congress approved the Choice program in 2014 after the scandal at the Phoenix VA, in which some veterans died while waiting months for appointments. During the 2016 campaign, Trump criticized the VA for long wait times and mismanagement, pledging to give veterans more options in seeing outside providers.

Currently, more than 30 percent of VA appointments are in the private sector, up from fewer than 20 percent in 2014, as the VA's more than 1,200 health facilities struggle to meet growing demands for medical care.

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Follow Hope Yen on Twitter at https://twitter.com/hopeyen1

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