Veterans' Choice program funds could run out by mid-August, VA Secretary David Shulkin warns

Veterans affairs sign
Leaders at the Department of Veterans Affairs revealed a significant budget shortfall in the department’s Choice program. (JeffOnWire CC BY 2.0)

Leaders at the Department of Veterans Affairs revealed a significant budget shortfall in the department’s Choice program at a budgetary hearing on Capitol Hill.

VA Secretary David Shulkin said in his testimony to the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee that the program faces a $1 billion shortfall. This was caused, at least in part, by the department’s excessive use of an exception that allows veterans to be treated by private physicians if traveling to a VA facility proved too much of a burden, he said.

The department is requesting that Congress allow it to shift money from other budgetary areas to the Choice program.

"We need your help on the best solution to get more money into the Choice account," Shulkin said at the hearing. "If there is no action at all by Congress, then the Choice program will dry up by mid-August."

The Trump administration had previously extended the program, and funding was expected to last until early next year. If it had not been continued, Choice would have ended on Aug. 7. 

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Shulkin said he became aware of the funding shortfall last week and that the department has told its medical centers to limit the number of patients they send to private doctors to cut back on Choice spending. The program typically restricts the use of private physicians only to when a veteran would have to wait 30 days or more to get an appointment at a VA facility, or must drive more than 40 miles to a VA hospital.

Some veterans were being sent to other VA facilities farther away, Department of Defense hospitals and other alternatives, according to an internal memo from June 7, reports the Associated Press.

Senators on the panel expressed disbelief and disappointment in the VA’s inability to see the spending problems coming down the pike.

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"For months we've been asking about the Choice spend rate and we were never provided those answers to make an informed decision," Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., the panel’s top Democrat, said, according to the AP. "No one wants to delay care for veterans—no one—so we will act appropriately. For that to happen this late in the game is frustrating to me."

All aspects of VA healthcare have been under close scrutiny following a nationwide scandal in 2014 that exposed long wait times for veterans seeking care in the system. Since then, hospitals from North Carolina to Houston to Washington, D.C., have come under fire for practices that may have put patients at risk.