VA secretary to Congress: Choice program must be extended now

VA secretary to Congress: Choice program must be extended now
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Gina Harkins is MOAA's Senior Digital Content Manager. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at: @ginaaharkins.

VA Secretary David Shulkin warned lawmakers Tuesday that veterans could face another wait-time crisis like the one that rocked his department in 2014 if they don't take immediate steps to extend the Choice Card program.

“If we do not do this extension, this will be a disaster for veterans,” Shulkin told members of the House Veterans Affairs Committee. “We will see the same situation that we saw in April 2014. …We need to do this now.” 

Shulkin last week listed extending the Veterans Choice program in his 10-point plan to modernize the VA. The program, which allows veterans to see doctors closer to home, is set to expire this summer. That would be a mistake, the secretary said. 

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who cosponsored legislation that would eliminate the expiration date on the Choice program, agrees. Extending the Choice program will help “keep faith with the nation's veterans,” he told members of the committee Tuesday. 

“Hundreds of thousands of veterans will lose their ability to visit a community provider and the VA system will once again become overwhelmed,” McCain said. “I'm concerned that veterans nationwide may encounter significant lapses in care if we don't act quickly.”

McCain cited Army veteran Steven Cooper's case as an example of what must be prevented in the future. Cooper, who served 18 years in the Army, complained of abdominal pain during a 2011 visit to the VA hospital in Phoenix, Ariz. 

This week, a federal judge determined Cooper's nurse practitioner breached the standard of care by failing to order more testing and refer him to a urologist, the Arizona Republic reported. He was later diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer. This week, he was awarded a $2.5 million settlement. 

“Steve waited for almost two years before seeing a doctor at the Phoenix VA,” McCain said of the medical facility that became the epicenter of the VA wait-time crisis. “By the time he received care, his routine urology appointment had turned into a diagnosis of terminal cancer.

“It's not acceptable and it needs to be stopped,” McCain said. 

Choice has faced scrutiny over its complicated rules, though, and Shulkin acknowledged it should be rewritten. The $10 billion program, which Congress created in 2014, allows veterans facing long wait times who live more than 40 miles from a VA facility find care closer to home. Having served in the private sector, though, Shulkin said he “would not have designed a system quite as complex as this.” 

“This process is too complicated,” Shulkin said. “I hope that when we work on Choice 2.0, we make it simpler to administer than it is today.” 

Lawmakers are expected to make a decision on extending the Choice program over the next few weeks. 

During the hearing, Shulkin also laid out plans to better combat veteran suicide - including providing mental health care for those who've received other-than-honorable discharges. Too many veterans, he said, are disconnected from the system. 

“We want to do as much as we can,” he told the committee, which applauded. “I do not think it can wait, so we're going to start doing that now. I believe it's in the secretary's authority to be able to do that.”

Shulkin also said the VA will study alternative treatment options for people suffering from traumatic brain injury or post-traumatic stress. The department recently stood up the Office of Compassionate Innovation, which he said will explore new ways to treat emotional disorders. 

Gina Harkins can be reached Follow her on Twitter:@ginaaharkins  


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