The Department of Veterans Affairs says a program that offers veterans private-sector health care will run out of money much sooner than expected.
VA Secretary David Shulkin made the disclosure about the Veterans Choice Program June 7th at a Senate hearing.
He cites a shortfall of more than $1 billion due to increased demand from veterans for care outside the VA, telling Senators that March, April and May have been extra busy for Choice.
"And frankly that happened because we've fixed so many of the problems that we've all been working to fix with Choice, and we've increased our use of Choice," says Shulkin.
The VA has asked Congress for authority to shift money from other accounts to cover the shortfall. The VA found itself in a similar situation two years ago and Congress was able to assist.
The Associated Press reports the department began instructing VA medical centers late last week to limit the number of veterans it sent to private doctors so it can slow Choice spending. Spending on care in the community may instead come from a separate VA account that does not have the same eligibility restrictions on mileage or wait times.
Al Montoya, director of the VA Medical Center in White River Junction, Vt., says the guidance coming down from Sec. Shulkin was that there would be no change for veterans eligible for Choice. He says on average the hospital spends $700,000 per month on Veterans Choice claims.
Officials with the Manchester VA did not comment on the hospital's use of the Choice program, but forwarded a statement saying that federal law requires the VA to have multiple accounts used for veterans' care in the community. "This accounting structure creates barriers to VA using VA community care fund in the most optimized way," the statement reads.
Last month, the New Hampshire State Veterans Advisory Committee urged Congress to renew and improve the Choice program.
Shulkin's announcement comes as the VA attempts to improve the program. Right now, veterans may be eligible to receive care through Choice at private hospitals funded by the VA if they live a certain distance from a VA Medical Center or must wait more than 30 days for an appointment at the VA. In New Hampshire, that distance is 20 miles.
Shulkin told members of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs last week that the VA needs "to move from a system where eligibility for community care is based on wait times and geography to one focused on clinical need and quality of care."