On Wednesday, President Donald Trump signed the Veterans Choice Program Extension and Improvement Act, a bill to preserve a flawed but important program that represents a first step in enabling veterans to choose another health care option besides the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). This reform will help address the heinous problem of veterans dying while waiting in line for care.
“The veterans have poured out their sweat and blood and tears for this country for so long and it’s time that they’re recognized and that we now take care of them and take care of them properly,” President Trump declared. He explained that the goal of the act is to enable veterans to “see the doctor of their choice” and avoid having to “wait and travel long distances for VA care.”
Here is a photo of President Trump after signing the bill, with VA Secretary David Shulkin, Florida Governor Rick Scott, and others.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 19, 2017
While the bill represented an accomplishment, everyone at the signing agreed it was a mere first step toward the larger goal.
“This was a very important bill to get started with,” Congressman Phil Roe (R-Tenn.) explained. “What we want to do is put the veterans in charge of these choices, not the bureaucracy.”
Mark Lucas, executive director at Concerned Veterans for America (CVA), attended the ceremony and hailed the legislation. “President Trump is upholding the promises he made to veterans and we applaud him for continuing to make them a priority,” Lucas said in a statement. “However, there is more to be done.”
Lucas explained that the Choice Program “was passed as a quick fix to the wait list manipulation scandal that broke three years ago, and while it’s helped, too many veterans are still forced to seek care at failing VA facilities.”
With the program being extended past its original August 7 sunset date, “Congress now has some time to work with Secretary Shulkin on broader, more permanent choice reforms that will truly put the veteran at the center of their health care and remove VA bureaucrats as the middlemen,” Lucas argued. “We look forward to supporting legislation that will let veterans go outside the VA for care when they want or need to.”
VA Secretary David Shulkin and President Trump announced a press conference next Thursday at 2 p.m. Eastern to discuss Shulkin’s reforms at the VA.
Reform at the VA is long overdue. After the scandal broke at the Phoenix, Ariz. VA three years ago, little real progress had been made. After an Inspector General (IG) report in June revealed excessive abuse in Houston, Texas, another CVA spokesman, national outreach director Cody McGregor, outlined his organization’s understanding of the need for VA reform.
That June IG report found that two scheduling advisers had “instructed staff to input clinic cancellations incorrectly as canceled by patient.” Yes, these staffers canceled veterans’ health appointments, and put them in the system as canceled by the veterans themselves. Out of 373 appointments, the staff incorrectly recorded 223 as canceled by veterans. While most of the appointments were rescheduled, 94 of them were set beyond 30 days, with veterans waiting an average of 81 days.
“We’ve been advocating to start giving veterans choice — that would make the VA compete in the private market,” McGregor told PJ Media.”That will shorten the wait times because veterans can go anywhere they want, and they’re going to provide better care.”
McGregor called it “a simple notion — I chose to join the Army, I should be able to choose my doctor.” When he went to school using the GI bill, McGregor recalled, “I didn’t have to go to Army college, I got to go to any college I wanted to. If we apply that to veterans’ healthcare, I think we can see real changes.”
The other important reform McGregor suggested was to empower the VA secretary to fire bad employees. For instance, early this month, Secretary Shulkin endorsed the VA Accountability First Act of 2017 after an employee was caught watching porn on the job — and Shulkin could not fire him immediately.
“I need the authority as secretary to remove these people immediately, Shulkin declared. He added that employees “who don’t show up to work, who do cocaine, and who are watching porn at work, are gonna be fired, because I’m not gonna tolerate it.”
The extension of the Veterans Choice Program is a temporary victory, and the first step toward the necessary full reform: real veteran’s choice in health care, and real accountability for federal employees.
Click “Load More” to watch President Trump sign the bill.