- The Veterans Choice program, which is designed for veterans who live far away from a VA clinic, will run out of funding next month. Legislation has been introduced in the House to make the program permanent and revamp it to lean more heavily on private sector providers.
- The proposal would expand private healthcare options for veterans, allowing those who enrolled with the VA two visits per year to any outside physician without a copay. The legislation also offers caregiver benefits to aging veterans, expands telemedicine allowances, makes hiring speedier and shutters older VA facilities.
- The bill, called the Maintaining Internal Systems and Strengthening Integrated Outside Networks (MISSION) Act, also includes $5.2 billion to keep the current Veterans Choice program alive for a year until a new one is implemented.
The Veterans Choice program was created through the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act, a bipartisan bill signed by President Barack Obama in 2014 in response to the VA's wait time scandal. The program allows veterans the option of receiving care from the private sector if they live more than 40 miles driving distance from a VA facility, or if they have to wait more than 30 days to get an appointment.
Funding for the program has proven to be tricky, as it was originally designed as a stop-gap measure with a life expectancy of two years. Before his ouster in March, former VA secretary David Shulkin warned that the program would run out of funding in June.
Lawmakers have been debating the program's potential for giving the private sector more control over veterans' healthcare. Republicans back expanding Veterans Choice to give more veterans the option of getting care through the private sector, while Democrats argue that expanding the program would give way to widespread privatization of the agency. It's worth noting that about 70% of veterans enrolled in VA healthcare already receive most of their care outside the system, according to a 2014 report from the Congressional Budget Office.
The MISSION Act is largely seen as a compromise: It makes the program permanent within the VA while broadly expanding private sector options for veterans.
The bill is expected to be rolled into opioid legislation due to be introduced before Memorial Day. President Donald Trump took to Twitter last week to urge Congress to fix the choice program before the holiday, adding that he will "sign immediately."
Meanwhile, VA leadership remains in a state of turmoil. Trump's nominee for secretary, White House physician Ronny Jackson, withdrew from consideration recently following allegations about his professional behavior. A new nominee is yet to be announced.