Vets Groups Back Congress' Second Try on Choice, Caregiver Programs

A doctor uses a stethoscope to listen to the heart of a Vietnam Veteran (Photo: va.gov)
A doctor uses a stethoscope to listen to the heart of a Vietnam Veteran (Photo: va.gov)

Major veterans organizations on Friday backed the new effort by Congress to pass legislation that would provide $4.2 billion to extend the Veterans Choice program while greatly expanding the caregivers program for families of disabled vets.

The American Legion and the Disabled American Veterans both endorsed the bill introduced by Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tennessee, chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee. The bill would also order a review of the facilities and inventory of the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Congress offered similar legislation last year, but the programs were left out of the $1.3 billion omnibus spending package that passed in March and was reluctantly signed by President Donald Trump.

Roe has claimed the backing of Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Georgia, chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, and Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, the committee's ranking member. Trump reportedly has signaled that he will sign the new bill.

Acting VA Secretary Robert Wilkie has warned that the current Veterans Choice Program, which allows for the outsourcing of VA health care to the private sector, will run out of funding next month unless Congress acts.

The bill introduced Wednesday by Roe would provide $4.2 billion to extend the program and also reform the way it is administered.

The legislation as currently written would require the VA to ensure the scheduling of medical appointments in the private sector in a timely manner and coordinate coverage for veterans who utilize care outside of a region in which they reside.

The VA would also be directed to provide "access to community care if VA does not offer the care or services the veteran requires," a summary of the bill states.

The bill also deals with a major concern of the veterans groups on the caregivers program, which is currently limited to the families of post-9/11 veterans.

The VA's Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers provides small stipends to family caregivers that in many cases allow disabled veterans to remain at home.

Under the proposed legislation, the caregiver program would be expanded to benefit the families of all veterans with a serious injury incurred or aggravated in the line of duty.

In a statement, Roe said, "This legislation must be passed and, if Congress fails to act, veterans will pay for that failure." (The full summary of the bill can be read here.)

Veterans groups have been cautious about supporting changes in the Choice program, fearing the "privatization" of VA health care, but Denise Rohan, national commander of the more than two-million-member American Legion, gave her support.

In a statement, Rohan said, "We believe this legislation, as currently written, represents a fair compromise that will help to strengthen veterans' health care for future generations while ensuring that veterans' caregivers of all generations get the support they deserve."

She said of Choice, "When VA care is unavailable, we support the use of non-VA providers. We also believe the Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs must remain the gatekeeper for health care and that veterans should not be expected to pay for care related to their service-connected disabilities."

Garry Augustine, executive director of the DAV's Washington headquarters said, "DAV has long advocated for extending comprehensive caregiver benefits to veterans injured and ill prior to September 11, 2001, and this legislation takes major strides to close that gap and provide equity to thousands of family caregivers."

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

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