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House Passes Emergency Funds for Veterans Choice, Care Access

The bill, which offers emergency funding for the Veterans Choice program to drive care access, awaits debate in the Senate.

A House bill to drive patient care access through the Veterans Choice program waits Senate approval.

Source: Thinkstock

By Sara Heath

- The House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill that offers emergency funding for the VA to help support veteran care access. The bill is expected to see Senate debate before the two-week August recess.

The bill allocates $3.9 billion in emergency funding to the VA, $2.1 billion of which will go to the Veterans Choice program to support veteran access to healthcare. The Veterans Choice program allows veterans experiencing extraordinary barriers to treatment – extreme distances, geographic barriers, or wait times exceeding 30 days – to be referred to private clinicians.

Veterans who cannot access a certain treatment within the VA may also participate in the Veterans Choice program.

The Veterans Choice program has grown in popularity as of late, prompting VA Secretary David J. Shulkin to request the emergency funding bill from Congress. Both the House and Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committees reportedly collaborated on the bill supporting veteran access to care through the Choice program and through the construction of more VA clinic facilities.

“The Committees have responded to this urgent need,” Shulkin noted in a public statement prior to the House vote. “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.”

READ MORE: What Providers Should Know to Improve Patient Access to Healthcare

The bill also includes language that would make it easier for the VA to hire the industry’s “most sought after medical specialists,” Shulkin stated.

In response to the House’s approval vote, Shulkin thanked Veterans’ Affairs Committee leaders and expressed hope that the bill will make its way through the Senate.

“I thank the leadership of the House and Senate Committees on Veterans Affairs’, Chairman Phil Roe and Ranking Member Tim Walz and Chairman Johnny Isakson and Ranking Member Jon Tester, for their great work on this bill, resulting in a unanimous vote in the House,” Shulkin said.

“This will make a real difference in improving VA’s capacity for delivering care to our Veterans, particularly by adding much needed funding for the Veterans Choice Program. I look forward to the Senate acting on the bill before the August recess.”

Congress has been debating the extension of the Veterans Choice program since earlier this year. In April, both houses of Congress passed a bill to extend the program past its August 7 expiration date. The President signed the bill into law at the end of the month.

READ MORE: VA Drives Plans for Patient Education, Experience Improvement

This current bill, which has currently only been passed by the House, would expedite funding for the program. As noted above, veterans have utilized the program at a higher frequency than initially expected, causing funding to run out sooner than anticipated.

The Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014 was originally created to help solve treatment access issues for veterans in response to the wait time fraud scandal at the Arizona VA facility.

That situation, in which VA employees were instructed to inaccurately record wait times to give the impression that wait times and availability were within regulation, resulted in the resignation of then-Secretary Eric Shinseki.

Although the Choice program was initially meant to resolve access issues for patients living far from VA facilities or facing wait times greater than 30 days, it has had its hiccups along the way.

A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report from earlier this year found that the appointment protocols for the Veterans Choice program created extensive wait times longer than the 30-day regulation.

READ MORE: VA Signs $19M Deal for Patient Appointment Self-Scheduling

Patients seeking treatment through the program face wait times of an average of 81 days because the process between the VA and third-party providers is long and convoluted, GAO found.

For their part, VA leaders have acknowledged that the Choice program is less than perfect. Congressional supporters of the Veterans Choice program claimed that extending the program, and now offering emergency funding, will allow the VA to work out the kinks in the program.

“This extension of the Veterans Choice Program will allow us to focus on improving and consolidating care in the community programs, giving veterans access to the affordable and timely care they deserve,” said Senator Johnny Isakson, who co-sponsored the bill to extend Choice and to offer emergency funding.

At the time that Congress was debating extending the program, Isakson and other like-minded legislators made the case that the Choice program does much good and should be allowed to continue and be revised, not canceled.

Ultimately, by supporting and extending the Veterans Choice program, legislators and VA leaders alike hope to offer better and more expedient care for veterans. While the program is not perfect, proponents have contended that the program does extensive work to support veterans.

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