VA: Choice Program Won't Run Out of Money Before Trump Signs New Bill

FILE - In this June 21, 2013 file photo, the seal affixed to the front of the Veterans Affairs Department building in Washington.  (AP/Charles Dharapak, File)
FILE - In this June 21, 2013 file photo, the seal affixed to the front of the Veterans Affairs Department building in Washington. (AP/Charles Dharapak, File)

The VA will not run out of money for the Veterans Choice program before President Donald Trump signs a bill to extend and reform it, a VA spokesman said Thursday.

"The Choice Program has sufficient funding to continue normal operations uninterrupted until the Mission Act is signed into law," the spokesman said.

Officials at the Department of Veterans Affairs earlier had said that funding for Choice, which serves an average of 30,000 veterans daily with appointments for private and community health care, could expire as early as May 31.

Last week, the Senate by a vote of 92-5 passed the VA Mission Act, which will provide $5.2 billion to extend Choice for one year while overhauling how it operates. Under the Mission Act, seven separate programs under Choice would be consolidated into one system to improve efficiency.

Trump pledged to sign the legislation quickly, but no date has been set for the expected White House ceremony that would mark one of the major achievements of his administration.

The overall VA Mission Act, which Senate leaders said could cost $55 billion over five years, would also expand the VA's caregiver stipend program for the families of disabled veterans. The caregiver program is now limited to post-9/11 veterans and would be extended to veterans of all eras.

The VA Mission Act would eliminate restrictions under the current Choice program that mostly limit private and community care to veterans who live more than 40 miles from a VA facility or have to wait more than 30 days for an appointment.

Currently, about one-third of the health care needs of veterans are served in the private sector, and concerns were raised during debate over the Mission Act that more outsourcing of care would diminish the VA's role as the primary provider.

However, proponents of the bill from both sides of the aisle said that private care at government expense is an option only when it is in the best interests of the veteran.

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

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