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Millions of vets get VA-funded private-sector care through program set to run out of money  1 Week ago

Source:   USA Today  

WASHINGTON – More than a million veterans annually rely on a Department of Veterans Affairs program to get private-sector medical care at VA expense, a program set to run out of funding in two weeks, according to data provided to USA TODAY.

Populous states with large veteran populations such as Texas, California, Florida and Arizona notched the highest numbers of veterans who have used the so-called Choice program since it was created in 2014 after veterans died waiting for medical care at the Phoenix VA hospital.  

More rural or remote states such as Alaska, Hawaii and Montana showed higher percentages of their veterans relied on Choice, which allows veterans to get VA-funded health care in the private sector if they have to wait longer than 30 days for a VA appointment or live more than 40 miles from a VA health care facility.

In all, 2 million veterans have used the program since its inception, including 550,000 this year.

The House passed legislation Wednesday that would make the program permanent and provide the necessary funding, and the Senate could take it up next week.

The bill drew opposition from Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., the highest-ranking Democrat on the House VA committee, who said it could undermine the VA by diverting money to the private sector. But more than 100 Democrats joined Republicans to pass the bill.

The legislation would combine the Choice program with six others that allow veterans to get private-sector medical care at government expense and task the VA with creating rules for obtaining outside care.

It would create a commission to assess VA assets and make recommendations about which medical facilities are worth repairing, where new ones might be needed and where others might be shuttered and private-sector care provided.

Montana Sen. Jon Tester, the highest-ranking Democrat on the Senate VA committee, said he supports the measure. So do more than two dozen veterans’ groups, including the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans and the American Legion.

“We strongly encourage the U.S. Senate to pass this important legislation swiftly,” said Denise Rohan, national commander for the Legion.

Federal employee unions are dead set against the bill and urged lawmakers to reject it.

“This legislation kicks the door wide open to VA privatization, no matter what its supporters claim," American Federation of Government Employees President David Cox said.

If it passes the Senate, which is likely, it would be a significant legislative victory for President Trump, who repeatedly promised during his campaign to overhaul the VA and expand veterans’ options to get VA-funded care from the private sector. 

“Who will stand with our Great Vets, caregivers, and Veterans Service Organizations?” Trump tweeted before the House vote Wednesday. “Must get Choice passed by Memorial Day!”

If it fails, Congress could pass a stopgap measure to keep the program funded past May 31, when it is expected to run out of money. Lawmakers have passed two such measures in the past year.

If they don’t, the Choice data from recent years illustrate how many veterans could be stuck waiting again or traveling long distances for VA care without the program. Here's how the numbers stack up:

States with the highest number of veterans who used Choice in 2017:

• Texas: 103,671

• California: 87,818

• Florida: 74,420

• Arizona: 51,539

• North Carolina: 45,419

States where the largest percentages of VA enrollees used Choice:

• Alaska: 10,861 (33%)

• Hawaii: 14,435 (31%)

• Montana: 15,195 (30%)

• Idaho: 16,785 (28%)

• North Dakota: 7,555 (27%)

Though the VA was able to accommodate veterans within 30 days at its medical facilities for 92% of appointments as of March 1, more than 740,000 veterans were waiting longer than a month for VA appointments, VA data show.

Here’s the full list by state of the numbers of veterans who relied on the Choice program in 2017 because the VA could not meet their needs in a timely or convenient way:

• Alabama:14,790

• Alaska: 10,861

• Arizona: 51,539

• Arkansas: 13,089

• California: 87,818

• Colorado: 33,432

• Connecticut: 4,172

• Delaware: 2,842

• District of Columbia: 840

• Florida: 74,420

• Georgia: 39,865

• Hawaii: 14,435

• Idaho: 16,785

• Illinois: 21,600

• Indiana: 19,903

• Iowa: 10,818

• Kansas: 16,478

• Kentucky: 23,308

• Louisiana: 26,605

• Maine: 12,912

• Maryland: 10,083

• Massachusetts: 9,030

• Michigan: 24,955

• Minnesota: 17,052

• Mississippi: 21,044

• Missouri: 32,039

• Montana: 15,195

• Nebraska: 8,477

• Nevada: 21,477

• New Hampshire: 7,290

• New Jersey: 7,801

• New Mexico: 20,146

• New York: 24,175

• North Carolina: 45,419

• North Dakota: 7,555

• Ohio: 30,512

• Oklahoma: 22,506

• Oregon: 32,037

• Pennsylvania: 28,619

• Rhode Island: 1,676

• South Carolina: 15,640

• South Dakota: 7,011

• Tennessee: 44,439

• Texas: 103,671

• Utah: 8,115

• Vermont: 2,361

• Virginia: 26,334

• Washington: 43,575

• West Virginia: 12,359

• Wisconsin: 17,557

• Wyoming: 5,499




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