Acting VA Secretary says Veterans Choice money will run dry by mid-June

Veterans affairs sign
The Veterans Choice program is set to run out of money in June. (JeffOnWire CC BY 2.0)

As the Department of Veterans Affairs awaits a full-time secretary, the agency's health system is facing another major problem—the Veterans Choice Program is set to once again run out of money. 

Acting VA Secretary Robert Wilkie wrote in letters (PDF) to Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, and Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, that the program's funding will run out by mid-June. 

Wilkie called on Congress to come up with a bipartisan legislative solution to extend the program while he said he would work with Isakson, Roe and their colleagues on a long-term plan. 

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"Decisive action must be taken in order to deliver on our promise to our veterans," Wilkie said in a statement. "They deserve the best healthcare options available, and a permanent Choice program will give them that." 

RELATED: Veterans Choice isn't the only way the VA improves care for rural veterans 

The Choice program was created in 2014 following the nationwide scandal that revealed the long wait times veterans faced for care at VA facilities. Under the program, veterans can seek care outside of the VA system if the nearest hospital is too far away from where they live, or if they're facing waits of more than 30 days for VA care. 

The program was set to end last summer, but President Donald Trump extended the program to give the VA more time to develop a long-term solution. 

Former Secretary David Shulkin warned late last year that funding for the Choice program was again in jeopardy after Congress agreed to a $2.1 billion emergency package in August to keep the program alive. 

RELATED: National Academies report—VA provides high-quality mental health services, but it has an access problem 

Late last year, the agency submitted legislation to both VA committees designed to overhaul the Choice program. The bill would eliminate current wait time and distance restrictions, allowing veterans to instead seek care outside of the VA if their wait is longer than a "clinically acceptable period."

Several pieces of legislation have been considered to address issues in the Choice program, but disagreements over cost and how much access veterans should have to private sector doctors have slowed progress.