President Donald Trump extended the Veterans Choice Act on Wednesday to set the stage for a push in Congress to expand the program and allow more access to private care for veterans.
Flanked by veterans at an Oval Office ceremony, the president signed the bill to extend the Choice program, which was to expire on Aug. 7, and allow the expenditure of the remaining $950 million in the program.
The Choice Card program allowed vets facing lengthy wait times at Veterans Administration facilities or living more than 40 miles from the nearest VA to seek care in the private sector. Those already in the program will not need to re-apply under the bill signed by Trump, VA officials said.
The new bill -- the Veterans Choice Improvement Act -- addressed a major complaint of veterans service organizations by directing the VA to cover co-pays and deductibles directly for private care rather than reimbursing veterans for paying up front.
Trump used the signing ceremony to renew many of the pledges he made on the campaign trail to reform the VA.
"I've been telling all of our friends at speeches and rallies for two years about the VA, how we're going to turn it around, and we're doing that," the president said.
"So this is called the Choice Program Improvement Act. It speaks for itself," he added. "This bill will extend and improve the Veterans Choice Program so that more veterans can see the doctor of their choice -- you got it? The doctor of their choice -- and you don't have to wait and travel long distances for VA care."
VA Secretary Dr. David Shulkin, the only holdover in the Obama administration in the Trump Cabinet and the only cabinet member to win unanimous confirmation in the Senate, said at the signing ceremony that the Choice extension was a precursor of "the great things that are to come to fulfill the president's commitments that he made to veterans."
Shulkin has said that he will present to Congress this fall proposals to overhaul the Choice program to give veterans more options for private care and better integrate the VA with the private sector.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.