House unveils plan to fix VA's budget gap as deadline looms

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WASHINGTON (AP) — A House committee unveiled a disputed plan Friday to allow the Department of Veterans Affairs to shift $2 billion from other programs to cover a sudden budget shortfall that could threaten medical care for thousands of patients in the coming weeks.

The proposal by the House Veterans Affairs Committee would provide a six-month funding fix to the department's Choice program, which offers veterans federally paid medical care outside the VA and is a priority of President Donald Trump. To offset spending, the VA would trim pensions for some veterans and collect fees for housing loans.

At least six veterans' organizations, including Veterans of Foreign Wars, immediately announced their opposition to the House plan.

VA Secretary David Shulkin has warned that without congressional action, the Choice program would run out of money by mid-August.

The House plan comes after days of closed-door negotiations in which veterans' groups opposed taking money from VA programs to fill Choice's budget gap, describing it as an unacceptable step toward privatizing the department. With just a week left before a month-long August recess, House Republicans and Democrats tentatively agreed on a six-month plan to allow more time to debate long-term funding and the VA's future direction.

Under the plan, the reduced pensions would affect veterans in nursing homes who are covered by Medicaid, while veterans would continue to pay fees for housing loans guaranteed by the VA. Those provisions were temporarily put in place in the 2014 legislation establishing Choice and agreed to by veterans, who supported other parts of the bill, which provided additional investment in the VA. Originally set to be restored in 2024, the reduced benefits would continue until 2027.

A House vote was planned next week.

House Veterans Affairs Chairman Phil Roe of Tennessee and Rep. Tim Walz of Minnesota, the panel's top Democrat, pledged to revisit in the coming months the issue of providing additional investment in the VA, such as boosting recruitment and hiring of VA staff. Also to be considered was a proposal backed by House conservatives that would create a presidentially appointed panel to review whether to close some VA-run medical centers to reduce costs.

Carlos Fuentes, legislative director of Veterans of Foreign Wars, said the organization would urge members of Congress to vote against the bill.

Joe Chenelly, executive director of AMVETS, warned that the House plan would set a dangerous precedent by "cannibalizing" VA services to pay for outside care. Veterans' groups oppose greater privatization as a threat to the viability of VA medical centers, which they see as better-suited to treat battlefield injury.

"The bottom line here is that Congress is taking money out of the VA to put in Choice. That is a bleed-it-dry tactic that we all oppose," Chenelly said.

Also expressing opposition Friday were Disabled American Veterans, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, Military Order of the Purple Heart and Wounded Warrior Project.

In the Senate, the Republican chair of the Veterans Affairs Committee, Johnny Isakson of Georgia, has not indicated whether he will adopt the House proposal. The panel's top Democrat, Jon Tester of Montana, introduced a bill earlier this month that would provide equal levels of extra funding for Choice and VA programs.

Shulkin announced the budget shortfall last month, citing unexpected demand from veterans for private care as well as poor budget planning. To slow spending, the department last month instructed VA medical centers to limit the number of veterans it sent to private doctors.

The VA had previously assured Congress that funding for Choice would last until the end of the year.

Put in place after a 2014 wait-time scandal at the Phoenix VA hospital, the Choice program allows veterans to receive care from outside doctors if they must wait 30 days or more for an appointment or drive more than 40 miles to a VA facility. Last month, Shulkin proposed giving veterans even wider access to private doctors by removing those restrictions. He is asking Congress to approve that plan this fall for implementation in late 2018.

Currently, more than 30 percent of VA appointments are in the private sector, up from fewer than 20 percent in 2014, as the VA's more than 1,200 health facilities struggle to meet growing demands for medical care. During the 2016 campaign, Trump criticized the VA for long wait times and mismanagement, pledging to give veterans more options in seeing outside providers.

The VA has an annual budget of nearly $167 billion.


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