In 2014, the Department of Veterans Affairs was mired in a scandal.
An inspector general’s report had found “systemic” manipulation by government officials to hide lengthy and growing wait times at its medical centers. Veterans were waiting months for appointments, and dozens may have died because they could not get treated in time.
Spurred to action, Congress created a program aimed at temporarily alleviating the strain on the VA: Veterans who lived more than 40 miles from a health-care facility or who had to wait more than 30 days for an appointment could take their benefits outside the system and seek treatment from private doctors.
Veterans groups backed the move as a necessary response to a crisis. The Choice Program, as it was called, would allow veterans to get the care they needed while giving policy-makers time to make broader fixes at the Department of Veterans Affairs, which suffered from mismanagement and insufficient resources.
Three years later, attempts by Republicans in Congress and the Trump administration to extend and significantly expand the Choice Program have given these groups and leading Democrats a new worry: a creeping privatization of the VA.
“This particular program was authorized as a temporary fix in the midst of a crisis,” said Allison Jaslow, executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “We always viewed it as an experiment.” Veterans groups were alarmed at the Trump administration’s budget request, which while increasing funding for the department overall, proposed to make permanent spending for the Choice Program while cutting other areas of the budget, including benefits for disabled veterans. The plan fed concerns that Republicans would siphon off money from the core health system to expand private-sector options for veterans. “It is a ‘stealth’ privatization attempt which The American Legion fully opposes,” wrote Charles Schmidt, national commander of the nation’s largest veterans organization. “Choice should not be advanced to the detriment of cost of living increases for veterans.”