WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump signed into law an extension of the controversial Veterans Affairs Choice Card program on Wednesday, the precursor to a planned massive overhaul of the initiative later this year.
Flanked by officials from veterans groups in a White House signing ceremony, Trump praised the legislation as key to ensuring access to care for veterans and important to his larger promised reform plans.
The Choice Card program, created by Congress in the wake of VA’s 2014 wait time scandal, is one of several department programs for veterans to seek medical care outside department medical centers.
Veterans who face lengthy wait times for medical appointments or live more than 40 miles from VA facilities can use the available funds to seek private care instead.
It was set to expire on Aug. 7, even though about $1 billion in funding is still available through the program. Now, VA officials will be able to continue outside referrals through the Choice program until the funding runs out, which is expected in late 2017.
Veterans likely will see little immediate change with the extension. VA officials said they would start turning away veterans applying for the program if an extension was not passed this spring, but said that so far they had been accommodating individuals with other related outside care programs.
Individuals already in the program won’t have to reapply for future appointments. One change they will see under the new legislation is VA covering copays and deductibles for care directly, instead of reimbursing veterans later for those costs.
The bigger changes will come this fall, when VA Secretary David Shulkin is expected to unveil a “Choice 2.0” revamp of the program. That’s expected to include relaxed eligibility rules, more outside care options and billions more in funding to cover the costs of outside appointments.
Whether that timeline will leave lawmakers enough time to pass a new program before the original Choice program runs out remains unclear. Lawmakers will have to deal with a host of budget bills at the same time, and have vowed to take larger issues like tax reform and immigration later this year.
At Wednesday’s event, Trump also announced a press conference on April 27, to discuss his VA reform plans. Further details are expected from the White House in coming days.