Congress is returning this week from the July 4 recess under deadlines for action on an array of budget issues, including authorizing funding for the Veterans Affairs Department's Choice program.
Funding for Choice, which allows veterans flexibility in seeking private health care, will likely run out by Aug. 7 unless lawmakers act to provide a fix, according to VA Secretary Dr. David Shulkin.
The department initially proposed paying for Choice with cuts to the Individual Unemployability program, a lifeline to more than 225,000 elderly and disabled vets, but backed off the plan after an uproar from vets and veterans service organizations.
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Currently, the Choice program allows veterans to use private care if they can't get an appointment with the VA within 30 days or they live more than 40 miles from the nearest VA facility. Shulkin has pledged to expand the program and lift some of the restrictions under a revamped Choice program expected to be unveiled later this week.
The new plan would be included in the VA's budget for fiscal 2018, which begins Oct. 1. In his proposed budget, President Donald Trump called for $2.9 billion in new funding for Choice in fiscal 2018 and $3.5 billion in fiscal 2019.
Meanwhile, the VA is faced with funding Choice past Aug. 7, which will leave Congress with only three weeks to act before the traditional August recess.
Shulkin has urged Congress to pass emergency stopgap funding for the Choice program or give him the authority to transfer funds out of other VA accounts. Currently, he cannot transfer funds.
At a Senate Veterans Affairs Committee hearing last month, Shulkin made clear that he will no longer be looking at cuts to the Individual Unemployability program to pay for Choice.
Shulkin said that cuts to IU had been one of several options that the VA had considered to keep funds flowing to Choice and expand the program, but "as I began to listen to veterans and their concerns, it became clear that this would be hurting some veterans."
He said the IU cuts would amount to "a take away from veterans who can't afford to have those benefits taken away. I'm really concerned about that," Shulkin said. "This is part of a process. We have to be looking at ways to do things better, but I am not going to support policies that hurt veterans."
Veterans currently eligible for the IU benefit have a 60 to 100 percent disability rating through the VA and are unable to secure a job because of their disability. IU allows them to receive the highest compensation rate.
The budget proposal would have removed veterans from the IU program when they reached the minimum age for Social Security. About 225,000 veterans aged 60 or older could have been affected by the cut -- about 7,000 of them over the age of 80.
"It shouldn't have been proposed to begin with," Veterans of Foreign Wars National Commander Brian Duffy said of the initial plan to cut IU. "Balancing budgets on the backs of veterans is something the VFW will never tolerate."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.