Matt York / AP

Congress Votes to Extend Troubled VA Private Care Program

Some see bill as a fix, while others view it as a stopgap.

The House on Wednesday passed a measure to extend a struggling program to provide more veterans access to private care on the government’s dime, which will now head to President Trump for his signature.

The Veterans Choice Program Improvement Act, which the Senate approved earlier this week, would attempt to remove some of the impediments that have inhibited a larger number of veterans from enrolling in the program while also preventing it from sunsetting in August. Congress created the choice program in 2014 to alleviate the long waitlists patients faced when trying to receive care from Veterans Affairs Department facilities. 

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. Proponents of increased choice for veterans have complained of low usage rates and a recent Government Accountability Office report found a sample of those who did use the program still faced an average of 24-day waits to have their requests for private care referrals approved and an additional 14 days to receive an appointment.

“The choice program just isn’t working,” conceded Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., who sponsored the bill. He said his legislation “cuts the red tape and gives the VA more flexibility and I think the end result is going to be a much better choice program for our veterans.”

The measure aims to more quickly reimburse private sector providers and share medical records with them. Congress initially allocated $10 billion to the program, and $1 billion still remains in its account.

Despite its shortcomings, VA Secretary David Shulkin implored Congress to extend the program. Even proponents of the measure said it was a stopgap measure.

“By eliminating the sunset date of the Choice Act,” said Rep. Phil Roe, who chairs the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, “Congress is ensuring veterans have certainty and continuity of care while we work with the Trump administration to develop a strategic plan that addresses the need for a veteran-centric, coordinated network of care that utilizes the strengths of both VA and community health providers.”

Trump and congressional Republicans have vowed to further integrate the private sector into veterans’ health care options. Some in House leadership have proposed turning the Veterans Health Administration into a nonprofit corporation, and Trump has put advocates of similar proposals on his VA team