VA touts private health care for vets but cost issues linger

WASHINGTON (AP) — Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin touted an overhaul plan Tuesday to give veterans even wider access to outside doctors than under its troubled Choice health care program, stressing ties with the private sector even while acknowledging key questions of rising cost and sharing of medical records were still unresolved.

Testifying at a House hearing, Shulkin provided new details on the VA’s plan to permanently replace the Veterans Choice program. Acknowledging the program would run out of money sooner than expected, he urged Congress to act by year’s end to provide stopgap funding and loosen restrictions to ensure timely, quality treatment for veterans when unavailable at VA medical centers.

Veterans should get “more choice in the say of their care,” Shulkin told the House Veterans Affairs Committee. “Nobody should feel trapped in the VA system.”

Still, faced with repeated questioning from lawmakers, Shulkin conceded that an upgraded VA information technology system needed to reduce delays and ensure a smooth sharing of medical records with outside doctors was still seven to eight years away and that the White House budget office also had yet to approve the costs of its proposal. Major veterans’ organizations generally oppose paying for Choice by reducing veterans’ disability benefits or with cuts to core VA health programs.