WASHINGTON -- Senate lawmakers said Thursday that a $10 billion program run by the Department of Veterans Affairs to give veterans outside health care is broken and should be overhauled.
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, said he is sponsoring a bill to fix the chronic delays experienced by veterans who use the Veterans Choice program. The bill is backed by the VA as well as the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs, which will consider it Tuesday along with a raft of other VA overhaul legislation.
The Choice program was designed to ease delays in care and passed by Congress in 2014 in the wake of the VA's national wait-time scandal. It provides access to private health care for veterans who cannot get an VA appointment within 30 days or live more than 40 miles from a VA facility.
"Bottom line is the Choice program is broken," Tester said. "We need to fix it and we need to fix it as soon as possible."
During the past year, reports of delays in getting medial appointments and confusion among veterans forced to use private health care providers have poured in, according to lawmakers.
Some veterans face delays of weeks or months that mirror the problems of care that plagued the VA before the program was created, according to various recent media reports.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said veterans in her state are near unanimous in their calls to ditch the program due to frustrations.
"Now, our veterans are saying very clearly and very loudly that our VA health care system in Alaska is a mess," she said.
The Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee is working on an omnibus bill for federal government's second largest department that aims to fix the Choice program along with a number of other issues that persist at the VA, such as accountability for managers accused of wrongdoing.
Tester's bill would reform how contracted companies are used to connect veterans with private providers -- an arrangement that has been blamed for the program breakdown by the VA.
Secretary Bob McDonald, who testified before the Senate on Thursday, said the VA made the mistake of outsourcing its customer service to so-called third-party providers.
"We would literally just give the veterans a phone number to call and that just isn't right," McDonald said.
The Choice program "has not worked" and has further damaged the department's reputation, said David Shulkin, the under secretary for health at the VA's Veterans Health Administration.
McDonald and Shulkin encouraged the Senate to pass Tester's bill.