Lawmakers propose emergency funding for nearly bankrupt VA Choice program

(AP)

Lawmakers said Wednesday they are looking into a funding solution for the Department of Veterans Affairs Choice Program, which is at risk of going bankrupt before the end of the fiscal year unless Congress takes prompt action.

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House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chair Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., discussed a six-month, offset funding measure during a committee hearing on Wednesday. Roe said the measure would be worked through more fully next week.

Action isn’t coming a moment too soon, either, as the chamber is set to leave for its month-long August recess in a little over one week and has a tall agenda to tackle before October.

Funding for the Choice program—which expanded veterans’ access to care outside the Veterans Affairs system in 2014 in order to cut down on lengthy wait times—is running out of cash, and fast. VA Secretary David Shulkin said last month that unless funds were transferred into the account, the program could be bankrupt before the end of the fiscal year.

“If there is no action at all by Congress, then the Choice program will dry up by mid-August,” Shulkin said during a Senate testimony in June.

Between March 7 and June 14, the funds available for the Choice account fell from $2 billion to $821 million, Secretary Shulkin said, due to unexpectedly high usage of the program.

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When the program was created in 2014, it was awarded $10 billion to be used by August of this year. President Donald Trump signed an extension of the program in April, which passed Congress with bipartisan support. No additional money was included along with the extension because, at the time, Shulkin expected the program to have $1 billion worth of funds to be left over for use until next year’s budget was passed. The House of Representatives has only just begun working on a spending deal for the next fiscal year.

More than 1.6 million veterans have received care through the Choice program, according to the VA. During the 2016 fiscal year alone, the VA issued 2 million authorizations for veterans to use Choice, a fivefold increase over the year prior. In the first quarter of 2017, authorizations for Choice increased 30%.

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