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Congress Set To Extend Troubled 'Veterans' Choice' Program

Apr 5, 2017
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After the Veterans Affairs scandal back in 2014 in which veterans were waiting months to get health care at VA facilities, Congress took action. They created a program called Veterans Choice. It was designed to be a temporary fix, and it's been plagued with problems. Even so, the Trump administration wants to extend the program, and today Congress agreed. Montana Public Radio's Eric Whitney reports.

ERIC WHITNEY, BYLINE: It's not hard to find critics of Veterans Choice. It's supposed to connect vets to health care in the private sector if they've waited more than 30 days for a VA appointment or live more than 40 miles from a VA facility.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: So, you know, we've heard that loud and clear.

WHITNEY: At this VA town hall in Missoula last week, vets echoed complaints being heard nationwide that choice actually makes getting health care more of a hassle. And health care providers say they have trouble getting paid. Sandra Henderson, who manages a Missoula anesthesiology clinic, spoke out.

SANDRA HENDERSON: Our doctors are not going to turn down a veteran. They're not going to. They still want to be paid.

WHITNEY: VA officials admit to problems but say Congress didn't give them enough time to roll out Choice properly and that they were quickly overwhelmed with vets who wanted private sector appointments. Choice is set to expire in August, but the VA wants to make a few improvements and keep it going until January. That way, vets already in the system won't get dropped, and the administration will have time to come up with a bigger fix. VA Undersecretary Baligh Yehia says they want to overhaul not just Choice but the half-dozen other programs the VA uses to buy health care from providers outside its system.

BALIGH YEHIA: The idea of having seven, eight ways of doing the same thing is part of the problem.

WHITNEY: The ranking Democrat on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee is Montana's John Tester. He worries that problems with Choice will strengthen the case of those who want to completely privatize veterans' health care. But he's supporting the Choice extension bill.

JON TESTER: We have folks that have borne the wounds of battle, and I think the VA is best suited to take care of those folks. So that VA needs to be there. And then we need to have a private sector that fills in the gaps around that VA.

WHITNEY: A House vote today sent the Veterans Choice extension bill to President Trump's desk for signature. The VA hopes to bring a plan for larger scale reform to Congress in the fall. For NPR News, I'm Eric Whitney. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.