- Veterans Affairs Acting Secretary Robert L. Wilkie is calling on Congress to pass funding for the Veterans Choice Program, which aids patient care access for veterans facing extraordinary barriers.
The Veterans Choice Program runs serious risk of running out of money, Wilkie explained. Within the first two weeks of May, Wilkie can project that program funding will lapse within 30 days, putting the program in dire crisis if there is no federal action.
While VA staff are concerned about their shrinking bank account, Wilkie reiterated his confidence in Congress.
“The committees have been extremely supportive of the Department of Veterans Affairs in general, and the VCP in particular, and I look forward to working with you and your staff on a solution that will avoid shutting VCP down entirely,” Wilkie wrote in two letters sent to both Veteran’s Affairs Committee Chairmen Johnny Isakson and David P. Roe, MD. “I believe we are in agreement that legislation reforming VCP and the Department's other Community Care programs is our best course of action.”
The VA is requesting $1.3 billion in fiscal year 2018 and an additional $2 to $3.6 billion in fiscal year 2019. Those figures are in addition to the $1.9 billion requested as a part of the President’s fiscal year 2019 budget.
This funding is essential to ensuring there are no gaps or delays in care as the VA works to improve the Veterans Choice Program, Wilkie said. The Administration estimates it will need 12 contiguous months to adequately implement planned program updates, and an interruption in budget will hinder those improvements.
Wilkie also requested Congress address the Veterans Affairs Program in a way that will keep the program running for more than just a few months at a time.
“It is the Administration's preference that VCP be addressed holistically with reform legislation and that all Community Care programs, including VCP, be consolidated and funded via discretionary resources,” Wilkie explained. “Continuing to apply funding ‘band aids’ only prolongs the transition to a more efficient and effective program for our Veterans.”
The Veterans Choice Program is a vital community health program at the VA, Wilkie stressed. Each day, Choice allows up to 30,000 patients access medical appointments when they otherwise would have faced prohibitive barriers.
Currently, the Veterans Choice Program allows veterans who face travel distances, wait times exceeding a 30-day threshold, or travel barriers (such as travel via boat or airplane) to access care within their community covered and arranged by the VA. Patients who require a procedure that is otherwise not offered at the VA may also benefit from the program.
However, the Choice Program has largely faced an uphill battle. Just last year, the VA was working with Congress to extend program funding. The program was slated to expire in August 2017, but the Administration required more funding to iron our issues within the program.
By August, Congress approved of emergency funds for the Veterans Choice Program.
The VA is currently working to perfect the Choice Program, which in years past has faced some hurdles.
A March 2017 report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) showed that veterans participating in the Choice Program face wait times of up to 81 days, far exceeding the 30-day threshold the agency says it upholds in treatment access cases.
A complex approval process – which includes vetting from VA and third-party providers – makes for the long wait period, GAO found.
Earlier this year, Acting Secretary Wilkie sent a letter to Congress outlining efforts to revamp the program to operate better for veterans.
“It’s time to fix the Choice Program – as well as the department’s other non-VA care efforts – once and for all by merging them into a single, streamlined community care program that’s easy to use for Veterans and VA employees,” Wilkie explained. “America’s Veterans are looking to Congress and VA to come together now to provide them the best possible solutions for their care. Your VA will be working overtime to achieve the promise of leaving no veteran waiting for care.”
This most recent letter regarding funding will allow Wilkie and the rest of the VA to carry out plans to streamline the program and make it more beneficial to veterans.