Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin on Wednesday defended a controversial plan to expand health-care options for former troops, but the proposed legislation — one of the Trump administration’s top priorities — was excluded from the budget bill under a tentative deal that was reached late Wednesday.
Sen Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), who was part of a bipartisan effort to negotiate a compromise, while disappointed, said he intends to bring up the issue again in April when Congress returns from its break. And he said he was still optimistic about getting it through.
House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Phil Roe (R-Tenn.), said in a statement that while he was “very disappointed this agreement was not included in the omnibus, that doesn’t change the fact that veterans and their caregivers need these reforms.” But the issue is fraught with disagreement among lawmakers, who see it as a crucial moment in the agency’s history.
The compromise plan was supported by eight veterans groups and bipartisan lawmakers.
Earlier in the day during a heated Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs hearing, Democrats questioned both the compromise — known as the Caring for Our Veterans Act — and a separate VA request that would shift more than half of $4 billion from agency infrastructure spending into what is known as the “Choice” program, offering more private care to veterans at taxpayer expense.
The two issues are different, but what they have in common is at the very core of the recent debate over how and where the Department of Veterans Affairs should spend money.
Congressional Democrats want the money to be used to improve the existing VA hospital system, the largest in the country.
The Democrats have blocked — for now — the Caring for Our Veterans Act, which would offer veterans more access to for-profit health care at taxpayer expense, a setback to the administration’s legislative agenda and for one of the president’s core constituencies.
On Wednesday, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) was concerned about moving more money into the Choice plan because, she said, “it looks like you are diverting funds from the VA — a system that desperately needs it.” Murray noted that VA has urgent needs, such as improving hospitals with low rankings and helping homeless veterans as well as those facing high rates of suicide.
Shulkin has defended both plans, saying, “This is in no way an attempt to raid money from the VA.”
Later, after more questioning, he said, “Maybe I make nobody happy.” Shulkin added, “We’re trying to balance improving the VA and, at the same time, offering choice to vets. Ultimately, it’s your choice.”
It’s unclear what will become of the Caring for Our Veterans Act, which on Monday appeared to be headed into the budget.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) “put the brakes on the legislation,” according to congressional aides in both parties who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the talks remain sensitive.
Pelosi and other Democrats are concerned that the bill would diminish congressional oversight of the Department of Veterans Affairs, that it would go too far in outsourcing care and end up diluting funding to a system riven by scandals and long wait times.
Tucking the Caring for Our Veterans Act into the president’s larger omnibus bill would make it easier to pass. Now it will become a separate bill that could take months to pass.
Funding for the choice plan will run out in June, Shulkin told the hearing potentially impacting millions of veterans.
Sen. Jon Tester (Mont.), the top Democrat on the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, supported the compromise, which he had hammered out with Isakson, chairman of the committee; eight veterans service groups; and the White House.
Tester said it was shame a compromise couldn’t be reached after months of meetings with veterans’ advocates and hearings and rigorous reviews.
“Hopefully we can get his passed, because it’s the final piece of a puzzle to hold VA accountable for both VA care and choice care.
“I don’t know about the House. The bill we passed [in the Senate committee] is a good bill. And it has been held up by a few people, and we need to get over it.”
But Tester was separately worried about how VA intends to use appropriated dollars for private care. He was alarmed specifically about using more than half of the $4 billion negotiated for improving aging VA infrastructure for funding the Choice program, pushing more veterans into the private system.
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