Lawmakers are up against another year-end deadline that’s flying a bit under the radar.
It’s not the congressional push to find a compromise on government spending before the current continuing resolution expires Dec. 8. It’s not Republicans’ desire to pass a comprehensive tax bill by the end of 2017.
Instead, it’s the ticking time bomb that is the Veterans Choice Program, which the Veterans Affairs Department has said will run out of funding by the end of the calendar year. Congress has yet to find a permanent solution for the program, though several lawmakers have introduced legislation and some versions have cleared House and Senate VA Committees.
With the deadline nearing, VA issued another warning Wednesday and urged Congress to find a solution — any solution — soon.
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“While a limited number of legislative days remain on the calendar, we are hopeful that both the Senate and House can reach agreement on a bill before the end of the session,” VA Secretary David Shulkin said in a statement Wednesday. “To ensure our veterans receive uninterrupted care, we are open to a short term, very limited extension of funding for the existing program to allow sufficient time for a final agreement to come together.”
Here’s a roundup of several Veterans Choice bills and where they stand. Many of the options contain several of the VA’s own proposals, which Shulkin detailed in October in introducing the Veterans Coordinated Access and Rewarding Experiences (CARE) Act.
The Senate VA Committee passed the Caring for Our Veterans Act last week with a 14-1 vote.
Both committee Chairman Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) and Ranking Member Jon Tester (D-Mont.) introduced the legislation. It eliminates the 30-day, 40-mile requirements veterans must currently meet to be eligible for community care.
The bill designates $1 billion to VA for departmental care and $3 billion for community care programs. Specifically, it authorizes the department to coordinate care plans for veterans. The bill authorizes community care if VA doesn’t offer the service or type of care the veteran needs, or if the veterans and his or her VA provider decide together that community care is the best option.
Most notably, the bill expands benefits to veterans caregivers of all eras, a move that many veterans service organizations and some lawmakers have been strongly advocating.
“Get this done,” Carl Blake, associate executive director for Paralyzed Veterans of America, said during a press conference on the legislation Wednesday afternoon. “It’s not acceptable to continue to wrangle over this about the difficulties of why we can’t get this done.”
The legislation also guides VA on setting quality standards for the department’s facilities, and it includes other requirements for VA to more promptly pay its providers.
But funding for the legislation remains the big unanswered question. The Congressional Budget Office gave an initial score of roughly $54 billion over five years.
“It’s no secret that this is one of the struggles we have with things,” said Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.), House VA Committee ranking member, on Wednesday. “This is the case of going out and making sure the public knows they want this done. We need to make the case of why we need to be able to pay for this, and we need to figure out how to do that. I don’t take light of that, but we’ve tackled some of these tough things. … I’m not going to make it partisan, but we’re talking about a tax cut and we’re telling us we can’t pay for the caregivers who [take care] of someone?”
Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), the lone member of the Senate VA Committee who voted against the Caring for Our Veterans Act, and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) recently threw another legislative option into the ring.
Both senators have introduced the Veterans Community Care and Access Act, which gives veterans more leeway to decide where they would like to receive care.
The legislation consolidates all community care programs into one, and it requires VA to develop specific eligibility requirements where veterans could access primary, specialty, urgent, behavioral health and other types of care.
Meanwhile in the House, Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Phil Roe (R-Tenn.) and Walz, along with every other member of the committee, co-sponsored the VA Care in the Community Act back in November.
The House bill closely resembles VA’s own proposal and in some cases, a few Senate options. It would also consolidate all VA’s community care programs into one, with the department taking the lead to integrate and coordinate veterans’ care experiences.
In addition, the House legislation would forbid the use of separate VA community care cards.
In addition, Roe included an additional $2.1 billion to fund the Veterans Choice Program through fiscal 2018 in a bill originally designed to spark a comprehensive asset realignment process.
The Veterans Affairs Asset and Infrastructure Review (AIR) Act passed the House committee and was scheduled for a House Rules Committee hearing last month, but the bill hit a snag.
Though Democrats on the House Veterans Affairs Committee criticized the push to move forward on asset review before finding a compromise on the future of the VA Choice Program, their dissent isn’t the reason for the holdup.
Instead, a little-known law Congress passed last year is giving veterans groups and lawmakers their latest headache.
The House already passed the Federal Assets Sale and Transfer Act last year, which establishes a governmentwide Public Buildings Reform board to review agencies’ vacant, underused or outdated facilities.
Under the asset sale act, the board is supposed to make recommendations to the Office of Management and Budget, which will eventually develop a governmentwide plan to dispose, sell or transfer unneeded federal property.
But the VA “AIR” bill conflicts with the premise of the Federal Assets Sale and Transfer Act, which already authorized a governmentwide review of federal property.
The VA committee is working with the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which originally sponsored the Federal Assets Sale and Transfer Act last year. Roe specifically is working with members to find a solution and a path forward for the VA bill, a committee spokeswoman said.