Eight major veterans' organizations on Saturday urged Congress to provide emergency money to the Department of Veterans Affairs -- without cutting other VA programs -- as the House moved quickly to address a budget shortfall that threatened medical care for thousands of patients.
Their joint statement was issued after the House Veterans Affairs Committee unveiled a plan Friday that would shift $2 billion from other VA programs to continue funding the department's Choice program. Put in place after a 2014 wait-time scandal at the Phoenix VA hospital, Choice provides veterans with federally paid medical care outside the VA.
To offset spending, the VA would trim pensions for some veterans and collect fees for housing loans.
The veterans' groups criticized the plan as unacceptable privatization. They urged the House to embrace a bill that "ensures veterans' health care is not interrupted in the short term, nor threatened in the long term."
A House vote is scheduled for Monday. VA Secretary David Shulkin has warned that without congressional action, the Choice program would run out of money by mid-August.
"Veterans' health care benefits have already been 'paid for' through the service and sacrifice of the men and women who wore our nation's uniform, millions of whom suffered injuries, illnesses and lifelong disabilities," the groups said. "If new funding is directed only or primarily to private-sector 'Choice' care without any adequate investment to modernize VA, the viability of the entire system will soon be in danger."
It was signed by Veterans of Foreign Wars, AMVETS, Disabled American Veterans, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, Vietnam Veterans of America, Military Officers Association of America, Military Order of the Purple Heart and Wounded Warrior Project.
They called on House members to reject the bill and work with the Senate next week to reach a compromise.
In the Senate, the Republican chair of the Veterans Affairs Committee, Johnny Isakson of Georgia, has not said whether he is willing to adopt the House proposal. The panel's top Democrat, Jon Tester of Montana, introduced a bill earlier this month that would provide equal levels of extra funding for Choice and VA programs.
The House plan emerged following days of closed-door negotiations in which veterans' groups opposed taking money from VA programs. With just a week left before the August recess, House Republican leaders insisted on spending offsets and Democrats agreed to a six-month plan that involved shifting $2 billion to Choice. The aim was to take more time to debate long-term funding and the VA's future direction.
Under the plan, the reduced pensions would affect veterans in nursing homes who are covered by Medicaid, while veterans would continue to pay fees for housing loans guaranteed by the VA. Those provisions were temporarily put in place in the 2014 legislation establishing Choice and generally agreed to by veterans, who supported other parts of the bill, which provided additional investment in the VA. Originally set to be restored in 2024, the reduced benefits would continue until 2027.
House Veterans Affairs Chairman Phil Roe of Tennessee and Rep. Tim Walz of Minnesota, the panel's top Democrat, have pledged to revisit the issue of providing additional investment in the VA, such as boosting recruitment and hiring of VA staff. Also to be considered was a proposal backed by House conservatives that would create a presidentially appointed panel to review whether to close some VA-run medical centers to reduce costs.
Shulkin announced the budget shortfall last month, citing unexpected demand from veterans for private care as well as poor budget planning. To slow spending, the department last month instructed VA medical centers to limit the number of veterans it sent to private doctors.
The VA had previously assured Congress that funding for Choice would last until the end of the year.
The Choice program allows veterans to receive care from non-VA medical facilities if they must wait 30 days or more for an appointment, or drive more than 40 miles to a VA facility. Last month, Shulkin proposed giving veterans even wider access to private doctors by removing those restrictions. He is asking Congress to approve that plan this fall for implementation in late 2018.
Currently, more than 30 percent of VA appointments are in the private sector, up from fewer than 20 percent in 2014, as the VA's more than 1,200 health facilities struggle to meet growing demands for medical care.
The VA has an annual budget of nearly $167 billion.