Congress is deciding the fate of a popular veterans health program that is set to run out of money at the end of this month. The VA Choice program began in 2014 after revelations that some veterans died while waiting for care at VA facilities. The program allows veterans to seek VA-funded care through a private provider if they have to wait longer than 30 days for a VA appointment, or live more than 40 miles from a VA facility. The House has approved a permanent extension for the program, with the Senate set to vote on it this week. President Trump has pledged to sign the bill.
VA Choice has proven very popular, especially in states like Texas with a large veterans population, many living in rural areas. "The Veterans Choice program gives an opportunity for a veteran to go to a local doctor, somebody that's closer than the VA," says Buddy Grantham, advocate with the Veterans of Foreign Wars. "When you think about the VA medical center, especially here in Houston, it's really a large and encompassing area, so a lot of these veterans--particularly older veterans--have a long way to travel to get adequate care."
Critics of VA Choice claim it is an effort to privatize the VA. Grantham disagrees, and thinks the two can coexist. "I'm a strong believer in the VA Medical Center," he says, noting that VA doctors are uniquely qualified to treat veterans. "The typical doctor that I go to in the civilian world doesn't have a clue on how to deal with someone who has experienced wartime tragedies."
With strong support in the Senate and the White House, VA Choice is likely to become permanent. Meanwhile, the VA is still waiting for a new permanent leader. On Friday, President Trump nominated current Deputy VA Secretary Robert Wilkie to head the agency, weeks after longtime White House Dr. Ronny Jackson withdrew his nomination.