- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 3, 2015

VA Secretary Robert McDonald defended President Obama’s budget request to cut some funding from the new Choice Card program for veterans, saying he wants the embattled department to be able to make decisions about whether the program is working and when to limit it.

The president’s proposal to cut some of the $10 billion in program funding irked key members of Congress, who created the Choice Card just six months ago to federally fund private clinic visits for veterans stuck on long waiting lists at the VA.

And a poll released Tuesday by Concerned Veterans for American found that veterans overwhelmingly want the choice to receive care outside of the VA. While not asked specifically about the Choice act, almost nine in 10 veterans polled said it was important to increase options for veterans health care and approve of efforts to reform the VA.

“It was frankly my idea, so it wasn’t meant to be controversial,” Mr. McDonald said during a joint visit of top lawmakers from the House and Senate veterans’ affairs committees to VA headquarters. “In a world where you have veterans making the decision, I just don’t want to be short, and being short and being inflexible could create people not getting the care they need.”

Rep. Jeff Miller, Florida Republican and chairman of the House Veterans Affairs’ Committee, warned that the program will only last as long as there is money left in that $10 billion pot and that dipping into that could sunset the program earlier than lawmakers intended. He previously called the idea of reallocating the money a “non-starter.”

VA officials said Monday that even though the program is in its early stages, veterans have been using it at a much lower rate than anticipated, though they couldn’t provide numbers. Helen Tierney, chief financial officer at the VA, said most veterans preferred being treated by a VA provider instead of a private physician.

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Sen. Johnny Isakson, Georgia Republican and chair of the Senate committee, said the proposal could be viewed two ways: either as something negative that would diminish the capacity of the Choice program or as something positive that would allow the secretary more flexibility to provide better care.

“If it’s the latter, that’s great. If it’s the former, we got big problems,” he said. “We’re going to make sure we don’t divert money that would in any way interfere with carrying out the intent of the Veterans Choice Act and providing greater access to our veterans.”

The Choice Card allows veterans to seek care outside the VA if they have been kept waiting for an appointment or live more than 40 miles from the closest facility. It was created by Congress last year to send a signal to the VA, which was battered by allegations it maintained secret wait lists at many of its facilities, keeping veterans from getting care they needed.

Mr. McDonald said he supported giving vets the chance to see outside providers, calling it a “shock absorber we need” — though he also seemed optimistic he can convince Congress to give him flexibility to curtail the program.

“It had nothing to do with us trying to gut the Choice Card or anything like that, it was about flexibility,” Mr. McDonald said. “I’m pleased to be standing here with my partners in Congress because I believe if I can demonstrate that need to them, they’ll give me that flexibility.”

Tuesday’s meeting was designed to bring Congress to the VA’s doorstep after months of heated oversight hearings on the Hill.

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Mr. Isakson said the VA has done an “excellent job” in standing up the program, but said some “tweaks” may be needed to the 40-mile limit requirement.

Mr. Isakson also said VA employees, lawmakers and advocates from veterans service organizations need to work together to close an “education gap” about what options are available to veterans with the Choice Card.

“They’ve done a good job of getting it out, we’ve got to now do a good job of educating the veterans on whats available to them and finding out what we might need to do to perfect the language in the legislation to make sure the 40-mile rule works effectively for the veterans,” he said.

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

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