House reveals compromise plan to overhaul Veterans Choice program

The House has unveiled a bill that would establish a permanent community care program for veterans to replace the Veterans Choice Program. 

The bill (PDF), titled the VA MISSION Act of 2018, combines proposals floated late last year by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Jerry Moran, R-Kan. It would allow veterans to seek care with a private provider if they and their VA physician agree it's in their best interest, and it would be required to pass a number of hurdles before approval, such as whether or not the veteran struggles to access VA care. 

If a veteran's request to seek private care is rejected, he or she would be able to appeal the decision through the VA's clinical appeals process, according to the legislation. 

Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., chair of the House Committee on Veterans, said in a statement that the bill reflects compromises proposed in March to address the Choice program alongside the omnibus spending bill. The bill was crafted in conjunction with leadership on the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, Roe said. 

"The VA MISSION Act is appropriately named, as it will put the department back on track to fulfilling President Lincoln's promise to care for the men and women who have borne the battle," Roe said. 

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The bill also includes $5.2 billion in funding that Roe said should keep the Department of Veterans Affairs' Choice program running until the new program is in place.  

Acting VA Secretary Robert Wilkie warned Congress in late April that the Choice program would run out of money by mid-June. Legislators have approved several short-term funding fixes for Veterans Choice, but a more permanent solution has remained elusive due to disagreements over cost and just how much access veterans should have to care outside of the VA. 

The Choice program was created in the wake of the agency's 2014 wait time scandal and allows veterans to seek care at private providers if they live too far from a VA facility or face an unfairly steep wait time. 

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President Donald Trump said he supports reforming the Choice program in a tweet, saying Congress should address reforms by Memorial Day to avoid the funding shortfall. 

Moran said in a statement that he was pleased to see that the House had put forward a Choice reform bill, as it takes steps to ensure VA's health system "delivers the best possible care for our nation's heroes." 

"I have long been a vocal advocate for giving veterans greater choice and flexibility in their healthcare," Moran said. 

The House Committee on Veterans Affairs will consider the bill on markup next week, Roe said.