Lawmakers from both parties admonished Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin at a Senate appropriations hearing on June 21 for dropping a fiscal bombshell: The department has found a $1 billion shortfall that threatens the VA Choice program.
Shulkin says VA may need Congress to sign off on emergency funding to fill the gap and preserve the program, which allows veterans to seek medical care outside the VA, the AP reported.
"We would like to work with you," Shulkin told members of the Senate Committee on Appropriations. "We need to do this quickly."
The revelation comes only a few weeks after VA officials projected that Choice was under budget by $1.5 billion. Now, Shulkin projects that money allotted for the program will be gone midway through August.
Several senators asked whether Shulkin could simply cover the expense by taking funds from VA’s new budget, which represents a $4.4 billion increase over previous years.
“The department's stewardship of funds is the real issue at hand,” said Republican Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas, who chairs the appropriations subcommittee overseeing the VA.
Shulkin, however, blamed the lack of funding on unanticipated demand for the program and suggested that the 2018 budget request might need to be adjusted.
“On financial projections, we have to do better,” he told the committee. “We do not want to see veterans impacted at all by our inability to manage budgets.”
Moran joined three other senators June 21 in writing a letter to the VA supporting emergency funds to cover the Choice shortfall, but admonishing the department for its past missteps:
Unless Congress appropriates emergency funding to continue the Veterans Choice Program, hundreds of thousands of veterans who now rely on the Choice Card will be sent back to a VA that cannot effectively manage or coordinate their care. We cannot send our veterans back to the pre-scandal days in which veterans were subjected to unacceptable wait-times.
However, a representative for the American Legion, one of the nation’s largest veterans service organizations, says the Choice program — enacted by former President Barack Obama in 2014 as a response to excessive wait times — was never meant to be a permanent fixture of VA’s care for vets.
“The Veterans Choice Program expands the availability of medical services for eligible veterans with community providers, and was intended to be a temporary, emergency program in response to the revelation that VA medical centers were unable to serve the veterans in catchment areas who were requesting care,” Joe Plenzler, communications director for the American Legion’s national headquarters, told Task & Purpose.
Plenzler added that the organization supports the termination of the program, saying the American Legion would like to see Congress “rededicate the funding proposed in the 2018 Presidential budget request toward supporting VA’s medical infrastructure and existing community care programs.”
Task & Purpose reached out to Sen. Moran’s office for a comment and will update this story as more information becomes available.