Congress to vote on emergency funding bill for nearly bankrupt VA Choice program

Shulkin FBN

Lawmakers are expected to vote on an emergency funding measure to prop up the Department of Veterans Affairs Choice program, which is at risk of going bankrupt as early as next month unless Congress takes prompt action.

On Thursday, the House and Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committees both signed off on a piece of legislation that would provide $2.1 billion in new funding for the program over the course of 6 months, giving lawmakers time to work on reforms for the program. Additionally, the bill would allocate resources for hiring and the authorization of 28 new leases for VA medical facilities.

The bill is expected to be taken up in the House on Friday, before lawmakers leave for a month-long recess.

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.

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%.