President Trump signed into law a bill providing over $2 billion to open new Veterans Affairs department medical facilities and fund care for veterans seeking medical care outside the government system on Saturday.
"This bill will ensure that veterans continue to have the ability to see the doctor of their choice," Trump said during a press conference at the bill's signing. "You're going to have immediate medical care for our veterans."
The legislation, which passed the House unanimously, provides funding for veterans who seek treatment from a private doctor in certain cases. It also allows the Veterans Affairs department to lease 28 new facilities around the country, in an attempt to expand access to government-provided care. That makes it a compromise in the larger debate between conservative and liberal proponents of VA reform.
"We're grateful President Trump is taking decisive action to ensure veterans using the Choice Program won't see lapses in their care due to a lack of funding," Dan Caldwell, policy director for the conservative Concerned Veterans for America said of the bill signing. "Unfortunately, this bill took far too long to get to the president's desk and is $1.8 billion more expensive than it needed to be."
Caldwell's mention of $1.8 billion is a reference to the money authorized for the new VA facilities, which CVA opposed.
"Some of these leases may very well be needed, but authorizing them at this time could lead to wasted resources that could otherwise be used to better serve veterans," Caldwell said in July.
More liberal veterans' groups worry that the money spent subsidizing care from private doctors represents a first step towards privatizing the VA.
"You ain't seen nothing yet if you send people to the private sector," Rick Weidman, legislative director of the Vietnam Veterans of America, said in December.
Trump's team maintains that won't happen.
"[F]ears of privatization are simply unfounded," VA Secretary David Shulkin wrote in a July op-ed. "President Trump is dedicated to maintaining a strong VA, and we will not allow VA to be privatized on our watch. What we do want is a VA system that is even stronger and better than it is today."
But CVA hinted they still hope for future reforms.
"What we saw during this process was a preview of how opponents of veterans' health care choice will behave in upcoming months as Congress works on broader reform," Caldwell said Saturday. "We will continue holding elected officials accountable for standing in the way of veterans' best interests and we will advocate for legislation that will provide veterans with permanent access to private sector care. We agree with Secretary Shulkin that the Veterans Choice Program is not the end state of veterans' health care choice."