Shulkin: The VA won’t cut Individual Unemployability to pay for Choice

Shulkin: The VA won’t cut Individual Unemployability to pay for Choice

By Gina Harkins, senior staff writer 

The VA's Choice program, which allows veterans facing long wait times to seek care outside the VA, is rapidly running out of funds - but older disabled vets won't lose their benefits in order to pay for it. 

VA Secretary David Shulkin said his department “walked back” plans in the Trump administration's 2018 budget proposal to cut disabled veterans' individual unemployability benefits once they're eligible for Social Security payments at age 62. 

“We're not going to do something that hurts veterans,” Shulkin said at a roundtable with veterans service organizations at the VA's headquarters in Washington, D.C. “But that doesn't mean that we're not going to look for alternative ways … to make these programs work better or work more efficiently.” 

Shulkin's department is under pressure from lawmakers to fill an unexpected shortfall for VA Choice, the $10 billion program Congress created in 2014 that allows veterans facing long wait times who live more than 40 miles from a VA facility find care closer to home. VA officials thought there was enough money to keep the program running through December. But demand for the program has been high in recent months, and funding has plunged from about $2 billion to $821 million since March. 

Choice could be out of money within a month, Shulkin said, so the VA has to find ways to make up the shortfall. The secretary is working with members of Congress along with the Office of Management and Budget to come up with offsets to help foot that bill. 

“We're looking at potentially extending some of the administrative fees that were in the original Choice authorization that are expiring in August,” he said. “We are still looking and going back into our mandatory funding and seeing whether there are other programs that can work or that will actually benefit veterans and save money.” 

One solution, Shulkin said, could include focusing on the VA's vocational rehabilitation programs. If veterans can get back to work quicker, they won't need to draw IU benefits in the first place, he said. The secretary also is instructing leaders across the VA to look for programs than can run more efficiently. 

Even though Shulkin said veterans drawing IU benefits are protected for now, members of his department still contend the IU system needs to be overhauled. During the roundtable, Shulkin acknowledged he wouldn't have written the rules for IU as they stand today. 

“The way the program was implemented was the unemployment payments never stopped, so you could be 95 years old sitting in a nursing home, and you are still going to get unemployment benefits,” he said. “Frankly, if I were designing a new program, I wouldn't design it that way.” 

MOAA has spoken out against the administration's proposal to end IU benefits once veterans reach the age of 62. 

“[IU] is not merely a form of unemployment insurance that should end when someone ages out of the work force,” says Lt. Col. Aniela Szymanski, USMCR, MOAA's director of Government Relations for Veterans Benefits.  “Veterans don't suddenly stop suffering from a service-connected disability once they're old enough to retire.” 

 

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