FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:
Thursday, June 8, 2017
Contact: Amanda Maddox, 202-224-7777
Kristen Hines, 202-224-9126
Isakson Discusses Future of Veterans Choice Program
Examines progress of Choice Program implementation during committee hearing
WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, held a hearing Wednesday to review the progress made by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) on its implementation of the Veterans Choice Program. Isakson also addressed the future of the program, set to expire this year, during the hearing with VA Secretary David Shulkin.
The Veterans Choice Program, which Isakson stated “is probably the most challenging subject we will deal with in this term of Congress, as far as the VA is concerned,” was created in the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act, passed by Congress in 2014 in response to the wait time scandal that erupted during that summer at the Phoenix, Ariz., VA healthcare center.
Signed into law on Aug. 7, 2014, the legislation was designed to give the VA the tools needed to improve veterans’ access to quality and timely health care. The Veterans Choice Program gives veterans who meet specific criteria the option of seeking care outside of the VA healthcare system. The measure also included a so-called “sunset” for the program to expire three years after the enactment of the Veterans Choice Act or when the funds expired in the Veterans Choice fund.
“I was here in August 2014 when we started the great Veterans Choice debate,” Isakson said. “We are at the point where if we don’t fix it permanently, we are going to have a program that is out of money, out of gas, or out of both.”
Earlier this year, in April, Congress passed the Veterans Choice Program Improvement Act to remove the expiration date of the Veterans Choice Program and to allow the VA to use the remaining funds for veterans’ health care authorized under the Veterans Choice Program until it is fully expended.
“We have also learned a lot in the last 22 months about how the Choice Program has worked as we designed it and the things that we need to change,” Isakson continued. “We know we have to look at the 40-mile and 30-day rule, and make them better rules for the veteran and for the VA and make them something that works for Choice.”
Under current legislation, a veteran must either be more than 40 miles away from a VA facility or have a 30-day or longer wait for an appointment to be eligible for private-sector care. Isakson questioned witnesses VA Secretary Shulkin and Deputy Under Secretary for Health for Community Care Baligh Yehia regarding these rules and discussed the benefits and difficulties that could arise if these parameters were eliminated from the program’s criteria.
“We need to see to it that the VA … is unleashed to provide the highest quality service that it can and make the decisions that it needs to make on the ground at the time we need to make them,” Isakson concluded. “We need to give them the funding, commitment and resources to be able to do that. But on the same token, we need to be as open minded to making Choice work in the future as we have been on getting [the VA] accountability [legislation] done.”
Isakson is working with his colleagues in the House and Senate as well as with various stakeholders including VA Secretary Shulkin on legislation to enhance the Veterans Choice Program to ensure care in the community is available to veterans for years to come.
Isakson kicked off Wednesday’s hearing by discussing the important progress made by the Senate on Tuesday, June 6, to improve veterans’ services and care through greater accountability at the VA by passing the Department of Veterans Affairs Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act.
“[Tuesday] we had a voice vote passage of a bill we could not move in the Senate a year ago…,” said Isakson. “We did so because we found common ground where we needed to, we plowed new ground where we had to, but most importantly, we kept the veterans foremost in our minds.”
Watch Isakson’s opening remarks from the hearing here.
The Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs is chaired by U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., in the 115th Congress. Isakson is a veteran himself – having served in the Georgia Air National Guard from 1966-1972 – and has been a member of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs since he joined the Senate in 2005. Isakson’s home state of Georgia is home to more than a dozen military installations representing each branch of the military as well as more than 750,000 veterans.