A scheduled hearing to review options to overhaul the Veterans Affairs Department was postponed Wednesday, with Republicans accusing Democrats of blocking the proceeding due to "political games."
VA Secretary David Shulkin was slated to appear at the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee hearing with an array of veterans group officials, but the event was postponed after Democrats declined to provide unanimous consent for it. Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., on Wednesday morning interfered with a procedural process allowing committees to meet as scheduled, saying he and Senate Democrats objected to the motion from Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., “because of the decision last night by the president to terminate the director of the FBI and the questions that it’s raised.”
The committee was expecting to hear from Shulkin and others on the Choice Program, created through a 2014 reform law to allow certain veterans to pursue private care on the government’s dime. The program has run into challenges, with fewer veterans taking advantage of it than originally anticipated and those who did use it still facing extended wait times. Still, President Trump signed a bill in April to extend the initiative and to streamline the process for veterans to receive approval from VA for private care.
“The Choice Program just isn’t working,” said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., who sponsored the bill.
Amanda Maddox, a spokesman for Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., who chairs the committee, said the hearing has not yet been rescheduled and derided Democrats for preventing it from taking place.
“Due to the Democrats blocking all normal business in the Senate, we are forced to postpone today’s hearing on the ways Congress can improve the Veterans Choice Program and help maximize the benefits of the program for veterans across the country,” Maddox said. “It’s a shame Democrats are playing political games with the oversight of veterans’ care.”
Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., accused Democrats of engaging in “political theater,” adding that blocking the hearing “hurts veterans.”
“How the Senate is functioning or not functioning seems to me to be unrelated to what transpired last night,” Moran said from the Senate floor, referring to Trump's firing of Comey that made waves across the political universe. Moran later tweeted a photo of a meeting he held with Shulkin, saying, “Partisan games won’t impede our efforts to improve our care for our nation’s veterans.”
The Choice Program was a key component of the 2014 Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act, crafted by Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and John McCain, R-Ariz., among others. The program allowed veterans more than 40 miles from a VA facility, who required services unavailable at a VA facility or who faced a wait of more than 30 days to receive private care. The Trump administration has expressed interest in expanding the private sector’s role in providing health care to veterans, while most veterans groups have objected to what they say amounts to VA privatization.
Tester, the VA committee’s ranking member, agreed with his party's leadership that a special prosecutor must investigate Russian interference with "the democracy that our servicemembers fought so hard to protect," but took issue with its tactics.
"The challenges facing our veterans are great and we must not delay hearings so that we can continue the important work improving health care for the brave men and women who served this nation,” Tester said.
A Durbin spokesman referred to the senator’s floor comments.
This story has been updated with comment from Sen. Jon Tester.