President Obama’s 2016 budget blueprint proposes rolling back a program that gives veterans the right to receive faster care outside of the long waitlists at the troubled Veterans Affairs medical system.
Obama signed the Veterans Choice Program into law in August following months of partisan wrangling on Capitol Hill that finally led to a compromise measure to overhaul the agency.
The Veterans Choice Program was a key GOP provision in the deal.
Authored by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the measure provides “choice” cards to veterans that can be used to obtain medical care at designated facilities outside of the VA system.
But Obama announced Monday he’ll send a legislative proposal to Congress that would allow the VA to raid the program's funding, now set at $10 billion.
Obama, in his fiscal 2016 spending blueprint, said the money is needed “to support essential investments in VA system priorities in a fiscally responsible, budget-neutral manner.”
Obama has requested a nearly 8 percent boost in funding for the beleaguered VA in 2016, for a total of $70.2 billion in discretionary spending.
Democrats have pushed for additional money for the VA to pay for new hospitals and more doctors, but Republicans contend that waste and mismanagement are the primary problems facing the VA, and the Choice Program gives vets a chance to escape the dysfunction by allowing them to receive outside medical care.
Veterans groups were angered by the move to divert funding from the program, noting that Obama had touted the legislation to reform the VA in the months leading up to the November election and did not express opposition to the choice cards.
The program was funded to last until 2017 but would end sooner if money is diverted, critics said.
“That money was specifically allocated by him for the choice program,” Dan Caldwell, the legislative director for Concerned Veterans for America, told the Washington Examiner. “What that would do is cause the choice program to be a lot shorter and to inevitably serve fewer veterans.”
But in a conference call with reporters on Monday, officials with the Department of Veterans Affairs defended the move. They said the choice program was underused, and that many of the 8.6 million veterans who received cards said they would rather obtain care at VA facilities.
“What we are getting ... is that they are looking for more care within the VA system,” Helen Tierney, assistant VA secretary for management and the VA’s chief financial officer, said.
But veterans groups say the choice program rollout has been hindered by red tape, including a requirement that those who receive a choice card call the VA to determine whether they are actually eligible to use it.
Officials at the VA said they don’t know how much money they would like to shift from the program. Tierney said the VA has made “a tremendous number of calls to veterans,” and that the use rates are “much lower than anticipated.”
Tierney, however, said she did not know the specific use rates.
Republicans on Capitol Hill denounced the move and said they’d reject it.
“The president’s idea to reallocate a portion of Veterans Choice Program funding to other areas of VA is a complete non-starter, which I will not support,” House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said. “When a near-unanimous Congress worked with President Obama last year to create the choice program, we made a promise to veterans to give them more freedom in their healthcare decisions. I will not stand idly by while the president attempts to renege on that promise.”