House passes Veterans Choice program extension
On the second try, the U.S. House passed a bipartisan bill to extend funding for the program that pays for veterans to access private medical care.
An earlier version of the legislation was defeated on Monday after several veterans groups and Democrats banded together, arguing that the $2 billion in emergency funding being offered to extend the Veterans Choice program shouldn’t come out of the Veterans Affairs budget.
After days of back-and-forth negotiations, the House voted 414 to 0 on Friday on $2.1 billion in new money for a six-month extension to the choice program. The legislation also includes $1.4 billion for VA workforce development and the authorization of 28 leases for new VA facilities, the New York Times reported. It is expected to pass the Senate.
Created in 2014 with support from both parties following scandals about manipulated wait times at VA centers nationwide, the choice program sought to give veterans options in the private market while the VA worked to implement reforms. It’s of particular importance in New Hampshire, which doesn’t have its own full-service VA hospital.
The program – which has been beset with problems of its own – has nonetheless been increasingly and unexpectedly popular, and was set to go broke by early August.
“I’m pleased that we were able to come together on the VA committee and in the House to pass this reauthorization of the Choice Program and bolster support for veterans,” Kuster, who sits on the House Veterans Affairs committee, said in a statement Friday.
The choice legislation includes language from the Grow Our Own Directive Act, a bill co-sponsored by Kuster that separately passed the House Friday.
“We need to make sure that the VA is competitive when hiring medical staff and my legislation will increase pay for VA physician assistants. I plan to push for passage of the other provisions of the GOOD Act, which will create scholarships for veterans with medical backgrounds to train and work in the VA,” Kuster said.
The GOOD Act aims to help veterans train to become physicians assistants to work at high-need VA facilities. A 2017 GAO report presented before the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee stated that physician assistants experienced the highest rates of turnover of all medical occupations with shortages.
The Veterans Choice legislation passed in the House on Friday included provisions from a bill passed by the House in March that created a database to improve hiring for critical open positions at the VA. Shea-Porter amended the bill to include mental health professionals.
“I’m pleased that today’s bill includes an amendment I authored to improve VA hiring of mental health professions, who are on the front lines of our state’s efforts to combat the heroin, fentanyl, and prescription opioid crisis. Today’s bipartisan vote is an example of the good that can come when Democrats and Republicans work together to improve access to healthcare for our nation’s veterans,” she said in a statement Friday.