Following the scandal in 2014 where as many as 40 veterans died while waiting months for an appointment at the Phoenix VA medical center, Congress made a solemn promise that veterans could turn to a private doctor or hospital outside of the VA for treatment.
Then President Trump doubled down on that promise in April, when he signed a measure temporarily extending the Department of Veterans Affairs’ “Choice Program” through early next year to guarantee that veterans who live too far away from a VA facility or need immediate attention could also obtain private care.
Trump complained that veterans have "not been taken care of properly" but that they would now be able to see “the doctor of their choice” under the extended program.
Despite all the reassurances, Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin had some bad news for Congress on Wednesday during testimony on the VA’s budget: The Choice Program was unexpectedly running out of money and “will dry up by mid-August” unless Congress came to its rescue.
Shulkin, an experienced hospital administrator and former VA undersecretary for health, warned senators of a shortfall of more than $1 billion – one that he blamed on increased demand from veterans for federally financed private medical care.
VA officials had previously assured Congress that funding would last until early next year. But officials grossly underestimated veterans’ eagerness to get care outside of the VA’s long troubled health care system.
The demand was so great, that beginning late last week, the VA began restricting the number of veterans it sent to private doctors to slow the depletion of funding. In some cases, the VA dispatched veterans to Defense Department hospitals or other VA facilities located further from their homes.
"We need your help on the best solution to get more money into the Choice account," Shulkin told the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee.
The response from the Senate panel was decidedly cool. Some members couldn’t believe this was the first they were hearing of the problem and recalled other times when VA officials turned to Congress for a bailout when they mismanaged their budget or miscalculated costs. Two years ago, Congress had to come to the rescue with an extra $2.5 billion to help cover the cost of a ridiculously pricey hepatitis-C prescription drug.
“I’m deeply concerned,” said Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), a member of the Senate Democratic leadership.
"For months we've been asking about the Choice spend rate and we were never provided those answers to make an informed decision," added Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, the ranking Democrat on the panel. "No one wants to delay care for veterans — no one — so we will act appropriately. For that to happen this late in the game is frustrating to me."