VA Choice crisis averted after Congress seemingly reaches a deal on emergency spending package

Veterans affairs sign
If approved by the House and Senate, emergency funding will help bring new VA facilities closer to where veterans live, so care and access will be more convenient. (JeffOnWire/CC BY 2.0)

Fears of a spike in wait times at Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals were laid to rest this week as congressional Republicans and Democrats agreed to an emergency spending package that will avoid disruption in the Veterans Choice Program.

The bill, expected to be voted on by the House today, authorizes and appropriates $2.1 billion for the Veterans Choice Fund and also authorizes 28 major medical facility leases and puts in place reforms that strengthen the VA’s ability to recruit, train and retain their workforce. If it’s approved, the Senate must vote on the measure before August 15, the date the program would run out of funding.

VA Secretary David Shulkin said the funding will help bring new facilities closer to where veterans live, so care and access will be more convenient.

Shulkin alerted a Senate Veterans Affairs Committee in June that the Veterans Choice program faced a $1 billion budget shortfall because more veterans took advantage of the program that allowed them to get treatment from a private physician if the closest VA facility was too far away from where they lived. The program was created in 2014 following a nationwide scandal that revealed thousands of veterans waited months to receive care at VA facilities.

Veterans were worried that the lack of funding due to the stalled bill would mean they would once again face long waits for care.

Senators Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., and Jon Tester, D-Mont., chairman and ranking member of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, respectively, said in a statement that they were pleased veterans will have continue to have timely access to care. However, they also warned that the funding is a short-term fix for the problem, and lawmakers need to continue to work to address barriers to timely care.

Dan Caldwell, policy director of the conservative Concerned Veterans for America, told The New York Times that the VA situation underscores why Congress must pass broader and more permanent Choice reforms.

“Even after they finish scrambling to fund this flawed program, too many veterans will still be trapped in a failing system and will be unable to seek care outside the VA when they want to or need to," he said.