President Donald Trump on Saturday signed a $3.9 billion funding deal for the Department of Veterans Affairs that will shore up the nearly bankrupt Veterans Choice Program, allow the VA to open 28 new clinics, and implement new hiring programs.
Trump signed the bill in Bedminster, N.J., where he's staying at his golf club on what he's called a 17-day "working vacation." The bill -- a compromise created and supported by Democrats and Republicans -- will provide $2.1 billion to the Choice program, which allows veterans to seek health care outside of the VA. It will also invest $1.8 billion into hiring health-care providers and leasing new clinics.
Without congressional action, the Choice program was expected to be depleted of money by mid-August, which VA leaders said would have led to layoffs and interrupted medical care for thousands of veterans.
"This bill will ensure veterans will continue to have the ability to see the doctor of their choice. So important," Trump said. "Our great veterans deserve only the best and that's what they're getting."
VA Secretary David Shulkin and leaders of veterans service organizations joined the president for the bill signing.
Shulkin first warned lawmakers about the unexpected funding shortage in the Choice program in June. He attributed the shortfall to the program's increased popularity. On Saturday, he said the VA has scheduled 15 million appointments through its community care programs since the start of the year. The $2.1 billion is expected to keep it going for the next six months.
During that time, Congress, the VA and veterans service organizations are planning to work on a broad reform of how veterans receive health care in the private sector.
"This is really a temporary fix," Shulkin said Saturday. "We have more work to do with Congress. We have to collapse eight different ways of paying for community care into a single program, and simplify it."
But the bill signals a challenge for Shulkin in gaining support for his ideas to change community care programs. An original version of the bill that provided only funding for Choice -- without the $1.8 billion for hiring and clinics -- was shot down by the House after veterans organizations said it prioritized private-sector care while neglecting VA services.
The version that Trump signed Saturday also invests in VA clinics and personnel, and passed unanimously in the House and Senate. Lawmakers in both chambers praised it as an example of what can be done when both parties come together.
In a statement, veterans service organizations said the final bill "avoided an unnecessary crisis" and "made critically important investments in VA health care."
But the conservative group Concerned Veterans for America, which has advocated for a government-chartered nonprofit entity to run VA medical programs, criticized the groups and how the process was handled in Congress.
"This legislative process was classic D.C. swamp behavior, and now this bill is $1.8 billion more expensive than it needed to be," CVA Policy Director Dan Caldwell said in a statement. "What we saw was a preview of how proponents of restricting veterans' health care choice will behave in upcoming months as Congress works on broader reform."
With the bill now signed into law, the VA can implement a series of provisions to improve hiring for some of the agency's approximately 49,000 vacancies. The VA is also now authorized to open two new clinics in Gainesville, Fla., in addition to new clinics in Pittsburgh, Pike County, Ga.; Birmingham, Ala.; and Santa Rosa and Oxnard, Calif.
Replacement clinics will be opened in Ann Arbor, Mich.; Charleston, S.C.; Corpus Christi, Texas; Daytona Beach, Fla.; Fredericksburg and Hampton Roads, Va.; Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Fla.; Missoula, Mont.; northern Colorado, Ocala, Fla.; Portland, Maine; Raleigh, N.C.; Rochester, N.Y.; San Diego, Tampa and Lakeland, Fla.; Terre Haute, Ind.; and Rapid City, S.D.
New research space will be opened in Boston and a replacement business office opened in Denver.
Two other VA-related bills are awaiting Trump's signature. On Friday, the House sent Trump a bill to reform the process veterans use to appeal denials of their claims for benefits. The bill aims to shorten the amount of time veterans wait for decisions, which now averages six years.
A large expansion of veterans education benefits -- the "Forever GI Bill" -- was sent to Trump's desk Aug. 2.