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House rejects $2 billion in new funding for VA's healthcare Choice Program

072417 House approves 2B more for VA pic
Democrats balked, as almost all of them voted against the bill. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

The House on Monday rejected legislation that would have given the Department of Veterans Affairs another $2 billion to fund the Veterans Choice Program, which gives veterans the option of seeking care outside the VA in certain circumstances.

The bill would have passed under a normal vote, but Republicans called it up as a suspension bill, which is usually reserved for non-controversial bills that need less debate time and are supported by both parties. So-called suspension votes require a two-thirds majority to pass.

But Democrats balked, as almost all of them voted against the bill. As a result, it failed in a 219-186 vote, far short of the two-thirds majority needed.

The failed vote means Republicans may try again under regular order, and try to pass it under a simple majority, the way most bills are passed.

The Choice Program was created in 2014 in response to the VA wait-time scandal, in which the VA was systematically covering up how long it was taking for veterans to get healthcare through the agency. It was due to expire in August, but a VA reform bill signed by President Trump will allow it to keep operating in the short-term as a bridge to a longer-term choice program.

However, the VA has been warning that funding for the program will expire in mid-August, and that the funds aren't there to finish up the current fiscal year.

In March, VA Secretary David Shulkin suggested that the VA has the money it needs to fund the program, and that it only needed the authority to transfer existing funds into the Choice Program.

But in a July 21 letter to the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, Shulkin asked for Congress to quickly approve new funding, in part because of the "accelerated" use of the program.

"Veterans need Congress to fund the Choice Program immediately with $2.1 billion to ensure sufficient funding is in place until the president's fiscal year 2018 budget is enacted," he wrote. "This will guard against any degradation of community care services."

Under the bill that failed in the House, the $2 billion would be partly paid for by extending fees that veterans pay on VA mortgages through 2027, instead of 2024. Congress has extended these fees before in order to allow spending elsewhere.

The decision to supply new funding to the VA's Choice Program drew opposition from several major veterans service organizations, including Veterans of Foreign Wars, Vietnam Veterans of America, and the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Association. They said in a joint statement that the bill was bad for veterans because it doesn't also include new funding for health programs administered by the VA.

"[W]e oppose legislation that includes funding only for the 'choice' program which provides additional community care options, but makes no investment in VA and uses 'savings' from other veterans benefits or services to 'pay' for the 'choice' program," it said.

That same issue is a likely factor that prompted most Democrats to vote against the measure.

But Concerned Veterans for America said it supported the bill for maintaining the ability of veterans to choose care outside the VA system, and said groups that oppose the bill are really just opposed to any choice program.

"This is a transparent attempt by some of these veterans service organization to kill the Choice Program," CVA policy director Dan Caldwell told the Washington Examiner.

Caldwell's group supported the VA's initial stance that it could fund the Choice Program by transferring funds, instead of getting new funding. But the group said the House bill is acceptable even if it "isn't perfect" because it keeps the Choice Program intact.

CVA also criticized Democrats and veterans groups for appearing to flip on the bill.

"They spread false information about Chairman Roe's proposal in a transparent attempt to tie this bill to unnecessary VA spending," CVA executive director Mark Lucas said. "It didn't look like they were opposing the Veterans Choice Program several months ago when they happily stood behind the president for a photo op as he signed an extension without the funding increases they are demanding today."