Agreement on Hill Would Save VA Choice Program

The House approved on July 28 a Senate measure that would continue funding for the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Choice program, which allows veterans to seek treatment and care for their service-connected conditions in facilities outside of VA’s system.

The Senate bill, S. 114, called the VA Choice and Quality Employment Act, provides $2.1 billion in funding for the Choice program.

Additionally, the bill authorizes leases for 28 major VA medical facilities and contains provisions that would help the department recruit, train and retain the best personnel. Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., and Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., the committee’s ranking Democrat, co-sponsored the measure.

Bipartisan support by House VA Committee Chairman Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., and ranking Democrat Tim Walz, D-Minn., virtually ensured that the chamber would approve the Senate plan.

While veterans’ advocates like the Choice program, a plan to fund it through cuts from other areas of VA’s budget recently led to the defeat of a bill to keep it going. In testimony before the House in June, VA Secretary David Shulkin warned lawmakers that without additional funding, the Choice program would run out of money by mid-August.

The funding is enough to keep the Choice program operational for another six months. Legislators, in the meantime, intend to work toward a permanent solution.

To offset its costs, the Senate bill extends the present $90-per-month limit on pensions veterans who live in Medicaid-funded nursing homes get. It also extends a requirement that VA collect fees for housing-loan guarantees, and allows VA to use other income information from within the agency.
The House also approved three other VA-related bills:

*      H.R. 2772, which would require VA to tell Congress when Senior Executive Service (SES) employees are moved to new jobs. The measure emerged after reports that some SES employees were moved purely for personal gain.

*      H.R. 3262m which would establish a pilot program intended to attract former service members with medical and health care-related specialties to VA.

*      H.R. 95, which would provide childcare for veterans while they get mental-health or intensive-health care through VA.