The Department of Veterans Affairs received the go-ahead from Congress to raid $3.3 billion from the Choice Card program in order to ensure that regular facilities stay open.
The Senate Thursday pushed through a plan approved by the House which allows VA Secretary Robert McDonald to make use of Choice Card funds for normal operations, Military Times reports. The Choice Chard program was initially established following revelations of abysmal wait times and manipulated waitlist data.
In effect, the Choice Card allows veterans to receive care from private providers if they have to wait more than 30 days for an appointment at a VA facility, or if they live more than 40 miles from a facility.
The program has had a rough start. First, officials chose to interpret the legislation to mean that if a veteran lives within 40 miles of any facility, regardless of whether it provides the necessary care, then that veteran cannot access the program. Some lawmakers, like GOP Rep. Bradley Byrne, have called the move “very self-serving on the VA’s part.” (RELATED: VA Choice Program Still Excluding Vets Who Need Help Most)
Second, many veterans are kept in the dark about the program’s existence. Undercover footage of a veteran’s experience at a VA facility in Georgia recently showed an employee saying the Community Based Outpatient Clinic in Oakwood wasn’t accepting any more patients. The veteran, 33-year-old Chris Dorsey, was not informed about the Choice Card program. (VIDEO: VA Employee Tells Veteran That They Aren’t Accepting New Patients)
Officials at the VA have maintained that veterans do not make much use of the program, but when Veterans of Foreign Wars conducted a survey of its members in March, the organization found that 43 percent of respondents had no idea the program even existed, but 92 percent said they were interested. Among veterans who qualify, VFW found only 19 percent were accepted because of poor staff training. (RELATED: Report: VA Choice Program Keeps Out 80 Percent Of Eligible Veterans)
Lawmakers are frustrated, with some critics arguing the VA waited until the last minute to mention a budget shortfall so that they would be able to deplete the Choice Card program.
“We’re in this situation, quite frankly, because of gross ineptitude in planning that can only be characterized as malpractice in management,” said Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal, according to Military Times. “Congress cannot be expected to continue to bail out VA because of mismanagement.”
Approval for repurposing Choice Card funds via the highway bill extension comes with certain conditions. Officials must submit biweekly reports to Congress on how they’re using the funds. Additionally, the legislation allows veterans living within 40 miles of a facility to make use of the Choice Card program if the facility doesn’t provide the care needed.