WASHINGTON — Funding for the government system that allows veterans to seek private-sector health care could be depleted as early as Jan. 2, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The agency is required to include a notice in the Federal Register informing veterans the anticipated last date that the Veterans Choice Program will have money to operate. The notice was published Wednesday and stated the program would be bankrupt sometime between Jan. 2 and Jan. 16. The VA could not pinpoint a date “due to the unique nature of health care and the variability in health care costs,” according to the notice.
The notice provides a deadline to Congress, which needs to approve more funding to keep the program running.
Last week, VA Secretary David Shulkin sent a letter to lawmakers on the veterans’ affairs committees in which he told them that the Choice program would be depleted within 30 days and urged them to pass short-term funding before the new year, or there would be consequences for the program.
As of Dec. 7, the VA had about $490 million left for the program, he wrote. The agency spends between $200 million to $400 million each month on Choice.
This is the second time this year that Shulkin has gone to Congress asking for emergency funding for the program. In mid-August, lawmakers approved $2.1 billion to keep it going.
At the time, veterans had already felt some effects of the shortfall. There were instances of veterans with long-term medical issues whose care had been interrupted, veterans organizations said at the time, and requests to go outside the VA system were “piling up.” A VA spokesman said the lack of funding nearly caused layoffs at the third-party companies that contract with the VA to administer the program.
In the letter to lawmakers Dec. 12, Shulkin wrote the VA’s other community care programs didn’t have the capacity to take on all of the veterans who typically use Choice. If those patients were forced to stay within the VA for care, wait times for appointments would lengthen, he added.
“Taking these actions would have a number of negative consequences, including decreased access to care, damaged community partnerships and interrupted care continuity for veterans,” Shulkin wrote.
For months, Shulkin has urged lawmakers to approve legislation overhauling the Choice program and establish a system with more dependable funding. Separate versions of bills to reform the program have passed out of committees and onto the House and Senate, but with only 11 days left in the year and a looming government shutdown, Congress tackling the issue before 2018 didn’t seem likely Wednesday.
In a statement earlier this month, Shulkin pleaded with Congress to at least pass another emergency funding bill for Choice before the end of the year, and then come back in 2018 to discuss major reforms.
Lawmakers are now attempting to have short-term Choice funding added into a year-end budget deal. Congress passed an emergency spending bill to fund the government until Dec. 22, and lawmakers were looking to approve another stopgap funding bill by the end of the week.
An additional $2.1 billion for the program was part of a Continuing Resolution that House GOP leadership released Dec. 14, which would also fund the Defense Department through the rest of the fiscal year and other agencies, including the VA, until Jan. 19. However, it was uncertain Wednesday whether lawmakers would undertake that version of a stopgap bill or find another budget solution.
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