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VA Secretary Wants to Use Choice Program Funds for Budget Shortfall

Posted on June 26, 2015 by Brian Eckert

Deputy VA Secretary Sloan GibsonThe Department of Veterans Affairs is facing a $2.6 billion financial shortfall that it says is caused by increased veteran demand for healthcare. Deputy VA Secretary Sloan Gibson plans to ask Congress for permission to use money from the Veterans Choice program to cover the funding gap, a measure that could hurt veterans with mesothelioma who seek treatment at a non-VA care facility.

The Veterans Choice program is the centerpiece of a $16.3 billion VA reform law approved by Congress last year in response to a VA scandal over long patient wait times and falsified records. Of the $16.3 billion, $10 billion was put into a fund that allows veterans who are unable to secure an appointment at a VA medical facility within 30 days or who live more than 40 miles from the nearest VA facility to seek care at a private hospital.

More recently Congress amended the legislation to define the 40-mile rule as actual driving distance, not “as the crow flies” distance. And the House is currently considering another amendment to the Choice program that would allow veterans living within 40 miles of a VA facility to seek care at a private facility if their local VA hospital does not offer the specific services they require, such as mental health or cancer treatment services. This would be very beneficial to veterans with mesothelioma who are only able to receive the specialized care they need at a handful of VA mesothelioma centers as well as those unable to get an appointment with a VA oncologist within 30 days.

Secretary Gibson, according to The Columbus Dispatch, says that the program got off to a rocky start, but has expanded significantly in recent months and is likely to expand even more. The ability of the program to meet the health needs of veterans with private care, however, whether they live in rural areas or simply cannot secure a timely appointment, would be hampered by the appropriation of $2.6 billion to other VA health care costs.

That’s more than one-quarter of the entire budget of the Choice program, which runs through August 2017 or until the $10 billion is used up. Using up $2.6 billion of that budget to adjust for what some are calling yet another example of VA mismanagement doesn’t add up for veterans helped by the Choice program.

While Gibson attributes the budget shortfall to increased demand at VA medical facilities—which he says has increased by 7 million appointments in the past year—others have been more critical of the VA.

“The VA’s problem isn’t funding—it’s outright failure,” said House Speaker John Boehner at a news conference. “Absolute failure to take care of our veterans.”

Wait times longer than 30 days for VA appointments have gone up by 50 percent in the last year, a clear sign that, whether due to bureaucratic missteps or more veterans seeking care, the Choice program is needed now more than ever.

Rep. Jeff Miller, chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee, says that he is prepared to give the VA Choice program funds to pay for daily health care expenses, according to Stars and Stripes, but in return will demand changes to the way the VA manages its finances.

Veterans who need help paying for mesothelioma medical services at a non-VA facility are encouraged to contact Belluck & Fox for a free case review. A lawsuit against the companies responsible for your asbestos exposure could provide funds for medical care, lost wages and other expenses related to your illness.

Veterans may also be available for monthly compensation from the VA. Use our VA Benefit Tool to find out whether you qualify.

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