Veterans could face medical care delays if Congress doesn’t approve emergency funding, Shulkin warns

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Thousands of veterans who receive medical care from private doctors could see that care interrupted unless Congress comes up with emergency funding for the Veterans Choice program.

Tens of thousands of veterans who receive their medical care from private doctors could face delays if Congress doesn’t approve emergency funding for the Veterans Choice program, Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin warned.

Shulkin this week repeated his warning that there could be delays in providing medical care to veterans who receive healthcare through the private-sector Choice program in a statement to the Associated Press.

Shulkin urged lawmakers to act soon to approve billions in emergency funds to keep the Choice program going. The Choice program allows veterans to see private doctors if they must wait more than 30 days for an appointment or travel more than 40 miles to a VA facility.

"As we have made clear for many months, Congress needs to pass a bill this year," Shulkin told the AP.

However, that money won’t come from another program that helps homeless veterans find housing. Following a backlash over plans to reallocate $450 million, Shulkin reversed course in a separate statement this week.

“There will be absolutely no change in the funding to support our homeless programs. We will not be shifting any homeless program money to the Choice program,” he said.

As for the Choice program, Shulkin said he was open to emergency short-term funding from Congress to ensure veterans receive uninterrupted medical care. Several congressional bills to provide longer-term fixes to the Choice program have been put forth, but there are disagreements over cost and how much access veterans should have to private doctors, the AP reported.

The VA warned in September that despite emergency action by Congress in August to provide $2.1 billion in funding for the Choice program, it could need additional money as early as December. The VA said it's not entirely sure when the funds will run out, but it could be by the end of the year.

The federal agency also announced in October that it has submitted the Veterans Coordinated Access & Rewarding Experiences (CARE) Act to both the House and Senate Veterans Affairs committees. The bill would eliminate the current wait time and distance requirements under the Choice program.

The Veterans Choice program was created in 2014 following a nationwide scandal that revealed thousands of veterans faced months long waits for care at VA facilities.