An ongoing political fight over funding of the Veterans Choice Program drove the agenda Tuesday in the first of a series of congressional hearings with the major veterans service organizations.
A joint session of the House and Senate Veterans Affairs Committees, with testimony from the leadership of Disabled American Veterans, followed a meeting Monday at the White House with Chief of Staff John Kelly. At the meeting, leaders of the VSOs aired their complaints that President Donald Trump's political appointees were pushing a version of Choice that would gut the core health care mission of the Department of Veterans Affairs and lead to "privatization."
Kelly, a retired Marine general, "indicated to us that he's going to try to set up a meeting with the president in the next couple of weeks," Garry Augustine, executive director of the Washington office of the 1.3-million member Disabled American Veterans, told the hearing.
Republicans and Democrats at the hearing backed up the organizations' concerns that political appointees on veterans issues at the White House and within the VA were aggressively pursuing reform of Choice, which allows veterans to opt for private care, that would diminish the role of the VA as the primary payer and provider of health care for veterans.
Sen. Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat and the ranking member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said that "there are outsize forces and there are political agendas that work against us. Dysfunction in the administration is bleeding over to the VA."
He said the political appointees were advocating Choice reform that "serves them and their financial benefactors instead of veterans."
Rep. Bruce Poliquin, R-Maine, a member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said he was in favor of a Choice program that would "augment the VA, not replace the VA," particularly in providing access to private care in rural communities where travel to VA facilities is a problem for veterans.
As for privatizing the VA, Poliquin said "That ain't gonna happen as long as I'm here on this committee."
The VSOs have been direct in asserting that the advocacy group Concerned Veterans of America, which is funded by the conservative Koch brothers organization, was behind the efforts of political appointees to undermine the VA.
CVA has denied the charges. Dan Caldwell, a CVA spokesman, told Stars & Stripes Monday that "We look forward to continuing to work with President Trump and his team to advance reforms to the VA that will ultimately help our veterans."
Sen. Johnny Isakson, a Georgia Republican and chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said the Committee passed a Choice reform bill last year by a vote of 15-1 that addressed the concerns of the VSOs. The bill would gradually expand Choice while providing ample funding for VA health care.
The one nay vote came from Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, who later joined with Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, in offering an alternative bill. The result has been a legislative impasse.
Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tennessee, called on both sides of the argument to recognize that private and community care, when properly integrated with the VA's health care system, was in the best interests of veterans caught up in wait lists for appointments, or who need specialized treatment unavailable at the local VA.
"I think there's a way forward," Roe said. "Sometimes you have to go out of network. We certainly want veterans to have options for their care. I think that it can be worked out."
The hearing was called to receive DAV leadership's comments on the White House request of $198.6 billion for the VA in fiscal 2019, a boost of $12 billion over the previous year. Other VSOs will testify on the budget later this week.
In her testimony, DAV National Commander Delphine Metcalf-Foster, the first African-American woman to lead a major VSO, said the DAV backed the Isakson-Tester bill as the best option for Choice reform.
She said the DAV and other VSOs want an integrated network of care meshing private care with the VA health care system, with the "the VA acting as coordinator for access."
The highest priority for the DAV in the budget, Metcalf-Foster said, was the overhaul of the current VA caregiver program, which provides small stipends for family members who care for severely disabled veterans to allow them to them to stay in their homes.
The program is currently limited to post-9/11 veterans, and Metcalf-Foster said it should be available to veterans of all wars.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.