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Congress Advance Bill to Extend Veterans Choice Program

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The Senate and House of Representatives have both passed a bill to extend the Veterans Choice Program, a VA initiative to allow veterans access to non-VA healthcare when facing extraordinary wait times or other barriers to treatment, according to multiple sources.

The Senate unanimously passed the bill earlier this week, according to a statement from Senator John McCain’s office.

“The Senate’s passage of our bill today is a critical first step towards ensuring our veterans continue to have access to the care they need in their own communities,” Senator McCain said. “To-date, more than a million veterans have made seven million appointments using the Choice Card with local health care providers for everything from diagnostic tests and urology screenings, to life-saving heart and cancer treatment.”

The bill’s passage allows veterans to continue to access care via the Veterans Choice Program, which was slated to expire on August 7, 2017.

The VA estimated it would have had $950 million remaining to carry out Veterans Choice for a limited period of time had the program expired on that date. The Senate’s legislation allows the VA to use that remaining money before the government contributes additional funding.

The bill also allows the VA to be the primary payer for Veterans Choice Program services, helping to reduce out-of-pocket costs for veteran patients. Additionally, the bill supports better data exchange and care coordination between VA and non-VA providers involved in the Choice Program.

“This extension of the Veterans Choice Program will allow us to focus on improving and consolidating care in the community programs, giving veterans access to the affordable and timely care they deserve,” said bill co-sponsor Senator Johnny Isakson. “This legislation also removes the financial burdens on veterans by making the VA the primary payer for care provided under the program.”

The House of Representatives also passed the bill to extend the Veterans Choice Program late in the evening on April 5, 2017. The bill now awaits the President’s signature.

Congress and the VA enacted the Veterans Choice Program in 2014 in response to the VA wait list scandal that led to then-Secretary Eric Shineski’s resignation.

At that time, it came to light that VA leadership offered misleading reports about veteran wait times. The agency often scheduled patients for appointments at facilities that did not exist or booked multiple patients for the same appointments.

VA leadership reportedly called for these practices in an attempt to mask appallingly long wait times for veteran patients, 43 percent of whom never ended up seeing a clinician, according to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report from the time.

The Veterans Choice Program aimed to remedy the nagging wait time issue with which the VA was struggling. The VA designed the program to serve veterans who face a 30-day wait period for care at a VA medical center.

The program also extends third-party care access to veterans if they live more than 40 miles away from a VA medical center, have to fly or take a ferry or a boat to visit a VA medical center, or face another unusual or cumbersome obstacle.

In a March 7, 2017 GAO report, investigators found that veterans are still facing wait times of up to 81 days due to inadequate scheduling protocol through the Veterans Choice Program.

The protocol by which veterans can access third-party care in the Choice Program is often lengthy and convoluted, GAO reported.

Veterans must undergo a vetting process during which both the VA and third-party contractors determine whether the patient qualifies for non-VA care. Veterans then must opt into the program and wait for their health data to be exchanged amongst providers. The appointment scheduling process can also be lengthy, the report revealed.

Despite these complications, policymakers still see value in the Veterans Choice Program. Per an NPR report by Montana Public Radio’s Eric Whitney, members of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee believe extending the program will provide the VA with the time and resources necessary to mitigate these problems.

Using the current troubles in the VA as an argument to terminate the Choice Program could lead to the privatization of veteran healthcare, something ranking Democrat Jon Tester does not want to see.

“We have folks that have borne the wounds of battle, and I think the VA is best suited to take care of those folks,” Tester said in a town hall meeting last week. “So that VA needs to be there. And then we need to have a private sector that fills in the gaps around that VA.”

Going forward, the VA will need to streamline the scheduling protocol for the Veterans Choice Program, ultimately allowing for a smoother and quicker transition from VA care to third-party care for veterans.

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