- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee on Wednesday flatly rejected President Obama’s plans to cut the new VA Choice Card, saying instead that he wants to expand the program to give veterans a better chance at care in private clinics.

Rep. Jeff Miller, Florida Republican, said if there’s extra money in the program it should be used to make sure other veterans can sign up, not given back to the Obama administration, which had asked for “flexibility” to reallocate billions of dollars for its own priorities.

“If there’s going to be any reallocation, it’s going to be to further improve and strengthen the program itself and not address other unspecified needs,” Mr. Miller told VA Secretary Robert McDonald.

The $10 billion Choice Card program, created after the VA’s waiting list scandal left many veterans struggling for care, gives veterans who have been waiting more than 30 days for appointments or who live more than 40 miles from a VA facility the chance to see a private doctor. It was part of Congress’s new law to fix the VA last summer, after the waiting list scandal broke.

Mr. Obama signed that law, but in his budget earlier this month he said the Choice Cards aren’t being used as much as he’d expected, and he asked Congress to let him take the money and use it on other patients’ needs.

“This is about ensuring every veteran receives the care they’ve earned and deserved regardless of where they decide to get it from,” Mr. McDonald told the committee.

About 24,000 veterans have made appointments for private care since the Choice Card program was enacted last summer and the department has fielded about 500,000 calls from veterans and providers with questions about the program, Mr. McDonald said.

Mr. McDonald told lawmakers that his intention in the budget request was never to gut the Choice Card program. On the contrary, he said he believes “the system of the future will be a network of VA and outside care.”

He said his request for flexibility was something he was able to do as CEO of Procter & Gamble and something Americans can do in their own budgets every day.

“Imagine your household. You have a checking account for gasoline, you have a checking account for groceries. The price of gasoline goes down by half, you’re hungry, but you can’t move the money from the gasoline account to the food account. That’s the situation I face,” he said.

Mr. Miller said he would work with Mr. McDonald on flexibility, but said it won’t come from the Choice Card program.

Lawmakers also peppered Mr. McDonald with questions about VA projects in their home districts.

Rep. Michael Coffman, Colorado Republican, criticized an overbudget construction project in Denver, which turned into a rebuke on Mr. McDonald’s service so far as secretary of the scandal-plagued department.

“I fundamentally believe that, as unfortunate as it is, that at the end of the day, at the end of this president’s term, that you will not have made a difference in changing the culture of this organization by virtue of the fact that you continue to gloss over its problems,” said Mr. Coffman, whose attack was cut off by Mr. Miller’s gavel.

Mr. McDonald told Mr. Coffman the problems in Denver lie at the feet of the congressman himself.

“I’ve been here six months, you’ve been here longer than I have. If there’s a problem in Denver, I think you own it more than I do,” Mr. McDonald said.

He also pushed back against allegations that changes in the VA’s culture were not substantial. Mr. McDonald publicly gave out his cellphone number last year and said he is contacted on it more than 120 times every day, about a third of which are positive.

“I’ll give you my cellphone tonight and you can answer the calls to see if I’m making a difference for veterans, see what they say,” he said.

“I’ve run a large company, sir, what have you done?” he added.

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