Vets Choice, Caregiver Programs Left Out of Final Spending Bill

VA Secretary David Shulkin testifies March 21 on budgets for veterans programs before the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)
VA Secretary David Shulkin testifies March 21 on budgets for veterans programs before the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

The $1.3 trillion spending bill signed Friday by President Donald Trump left the Veterans Choice Program in limbo and rejected a major expansion of the caregivers program that provides stipends to family members of severely disabled vets.

"Everyone in Congress constantly brags that taking care of veterans is a nonpartisan issue, so I have to ask why Congress wouldn't support improving the VA Choice Program, or allow more family caregivers to access VA support programs," Veterans of Foreign Wars National Commander Keith Harman said in a statement.

Veterans Affairs Secretary Dr. David Shulkin told a House Appropriations subcommittee last week that the existing Choice program -- which allows veterans to opt for private health care if they live too far from a VA facility or would have to wait too long for an appointment -- could run out of funding as early as May or June unless Congress acts.

Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Georgia, chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, had been pushing for inclusion of proposed legislation, called the Caring For Our Veterans Act, in the overall spending bill. The provision would have funded Choice and eased the fears of veterans groups that expansion of the program would lead to the "privatization" of VA health care.

Isakson said Wednesday that he hopes to reintroduce the Choice bill when Congress returns from the Easter recess next month.

House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tennessee, said in a statement that he is "very disappointed" that the Choice and caregivers programs were left out of the omnibus spending bill, but "that doesn't change the fact that veterans and their caregivers need these reforms."

The caregivers program, known as Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers, was begun in 2010 and allowed family members to receive monthly stipends, based on a complicated formula, for the care of severely disabled vets. The program was seen as a way to allow disabled vets to remain in their homes rather than in treatment at a VA facility.

However, the program was limited to post-9/11 veterans, and the reform advocated by the House and Senate Veterans Affairs Committee would have extended the caregivers program to all veterans who qualified.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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