Failure of controversial House bill could lead to spike in VA wait times

Wait times at Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals could return to extremely high levels following a spiked vote this week in the House of Representatives.

With all eyes seemingly glued to the procedural chaos around healthcare reform in the Senate, legislators in the House stalled passage of legislation authorizing stopgap funding for the Veterans Choice program. The bill required a two-thirds majority to receive consideration by the body because of the way it was brought to the floor.

VA Secretary David Shulkin told the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee in June that the Veterans Choice program faced a $1 billion budget shortfall due to heavy use of an exception allowing veterans to opt for treatment from a private physician if they faced too much of a burden traveling to a VA facility. That program had stemmed from a national scandal in 2014 revealing months-long wait times faced by veterans seeking treatment.

The procedural failure appeared to take some members by surprise, with Rep. Phil Roe, M.D., R-Tenn., telling the Tennessean that an agreement he thought he had reached with Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., had fallen through. “This was a bipartisan agreement, and I’m disappointed the concerns raised on the House floor [Monday] were not mentioned during what I thought was an open and honest conversation,” Roe said in a statement.

Veterans’ advocacy groups, however, had voiced opposition to the legislation before it passed, criticizing its narrow focus on the Veterans Choice program, and its diversion of funds from other VA programs to make up the shortfall.

In a joint statement posted by the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the groups urged House and Senate leaders “to develop acceptable ‘choice’ funding legislation that not only fills the current funding gap, but also addresses urgent VA infrastructure and resource needs that led to creation of the ‘choice’ program in the first place.”