- The Washington Times - Monday, February 2, 2015

Six months after signing a bill granting veterans permission to seek medical care at private clinics, President Obama called for cutting the program in his 2016 budget Monday, with officials saying they think veterans would rather stay inside the VA.

The Choice Card program was Congress’s key fix to last year’s waiting list scandal, which exposed veterans getting bad care or possibly even dying while stuck on secret waiting lists. The card program allowed those veterans waiting the longest, or who lived furthest away from a Veterans Administration clinic, to get care from a private facility instead.

But Mr. Obama on Monday said he wants to take at least some of the $10 billion he signed into law in August and divert it back to the VA, hiring more employees within the department.

“Use of the Choice program, even though it’s still a new program, has not been as high as anticipated. We are hearing directly from veterans and their representatives that they would prefer to get their care at VA facilities from medical professionals they know and with whom they have relationships,” said Helen Tierney, assistant secretary for management and chief financial officer for the VA.

The plan, however, is going nowhere on Capitol Hill, where Republicans said the administration hasn’t even given the Choice Card program a chance to get up and running before trying to kill it.

“When a near-unanimous Congress worked with President Obama last year to create the choice program, we made a promise to veterans to give them more freedom in their health care decisions. I will not stand idly by while the president attempts to renege on that promise,” Rep. Jeff Miller, Florida Republican and chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said in a statement.

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The administration, despite saying use of the program is low, couldn’t say how many veterans are using it, how much of the $10 billion has been spent already, or how much they plan to reallocate to hire VA employees.

“At this point, we are still studying this and we don’t have numbers. As I said, it is still a very new program,” Ms. Tierney said. “We are looking to try to better understand usage rates and what veterans are asking us for.”

She did say 8.6 million veterans have received their cards.

Veterans groups said the president’s plan was a retreat away from the bold reforms of last year, and back toward the flawed system that lead to the waiting list scandal, which found widespread problems at VA facilities across the country.

Mr. Obama had to fire his VA secretary in the middle of the scandal, and VA officials acknowledged they often put the department’s bureaucracy ahead of the needs of veterans.

“With this proposal, President Obama is placing preserving the current VA system over the needs, and preferences, of our veterans,” said Concerned Veterans for America CEO Pete Hegseth. “He is undermining the very reforms he signed into law before they are fully implemented, making it quite clear that he has no desire to truly reform the VA.”

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Administration officials said they are not ending the Choice Card program, but want to give the VA flexibility to use the money how the agency wants.

Shaun Donovan, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, said the administration proposed the change because “this is a new program and we’re not sure how many veterans would choose either to remain within the VA system or to seek health care using their Choice Cards.”

“It was not a cut in that sense,” Mr. Donovan said.

The administration’s fiscal 2016 budget request for the VA is $168 billion, including more than $70 billion in discretionary spending, a 7.8 percent increase over last year’s request.

By 2016, the department would have 30,000 more employees than it did in 2014, when the waiting list scandal hit.

The budget supports two of the president’s priorities for veterans: ending both the disability claims backlog and veterans homelessness by the end of 2015. It requests resources to hire more VA staff to work through pending claims and promises continued investments in homelessness, including 67,000 vouchers to help homeless populations, including veterans, find suitable homes.

The document also would expand the eligibility for the Montgomery GI bill refund at a cost of $22 million over the next five years. A commission that reviewed the military and veterans benefits system recommended last week that lawmakers sunset the Montgomery GI bill in favor of the Post-9/11 GI bill, which provides better benefits.

Those who worked on the commission will brief senators Tuesday on their findings, though it’s unclear how many Congress will accept or if they will influence this year’s budget debates.

• Jacqueline Klimas can be reached at jklimas@washingtontimes.com.

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