WASHINGTON -- Money is quickly and unexpectedly running out for a program that allows veterans to seek health care outside of the Department of Veterans Affairs, and VA Secretary David Shulkin is urging Congress to fix it.
In March, approximately $2 billion remained in the Veterans Choice Program, which was created following the 2014 wait-time scandal in order to allow veterans to seek outside health care. The funds dropped to $1.5 billion about a month later, and the account now holds $821 million, Shulkin told the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee on June 14.
Shulkin had originally estimated $626 million would be left in the account by the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30. Now, he's expecting all of the funds to run out before money for fiscal 2018 is appropriated.
"We now have too little money in Choice," Shulkin said. "If there is no action at all by Congress, then the Choice program will dry up by mid-August."
Shulkin attributed the faster spending to fixes that he had made to the Choice program. He testified more than 8 million community care appointments have been made so far this year, a nearly 50 percent increase from the same time last year.
He said he learned of the shortfall only last week and then directed hospitals to limit the number of veterans referred to the private sector.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said her constituents are already feeling the effects of restricting private-sector care. Some veterans in Walla Walla, Wash., were told by the VA to travel four hours away to hospitals in Seattle or Portland, Ore., for routine appointments, she said.
"Just so you know, I'm already hearing from people in my state about the delays and burdens they're seeing as a result of this," Murray said. "This is having an impact."
To continue the Choice program through the end of the fiscal year, Shulkin is seeking the authority from Congress to transfer money from a separate community care account that holds approximately $2 billion. The VA secretary does not have the power to move the money between accounts.
A similar situation occurred in July 2015, when the VA went to Congress asking to take money from the Choice program account to fill a gap in the account it uses for other community care programs.
"I wish it were easier than this," Shulkin said. "We have to figure out how to balance these two checking accounts at all times, and it's not a science -- it's an art. We're having difficulty with it, once again, and that's why we need to work with you again to solve it."
As of Friday, no legislation had been introduced to fix the problem.
Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, is "working with the VA, his colleagues and other stakeholders to find the best path forward to address the serious funding issues," his office said Friday.
Dan Caldwell, policy director for conservative-leaning Concerned Veterans for America, called on Congress to quickly pass legislation authorizing the funding transfer, but described it as another patch to a "flawed program."
This marks the second instance this year that Congress has been asked to take action to keep the Choice program afloat.
Congress passed a bill in April eliminating the Aug. 7, 2017 expiration date on the program. The looming expiration date was limiting some veterans from receiving private-sector care in cases when treatment would stretch past Aug. 7.
When Shulkin testified about the issue in March, he stressed, "[T]he time to act is now."
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., the ranking Democrat on the committee, said the urgent nature of this second request made the VA appear unpredictable and uncertain.
"That uncertainty, by the way, does not add confidence to the VA moving forward," Tester said. "We just need predictability, otherwise things are going to go upside down pretty quick. For this to happen this late in the game is frustrating to me."
The shortfall in fiscal 2017 also leaves the VA scrambling to fill a funding gap in fiscal 2018.
President Donald Trump's proposed budget for the VA includes $3.5 billion for a new version of the Choice program, called the Veterans Coordinated Access Rewarding Experiences program, or CARE.
The budget was created with the assumption the VA would rollover $626 million from the Choice program account into fiscal 2018 and would need to find $2.9 billion to cut elsewhere in the budget to inject into CARE.
Now, the VA will have to find the full $3.5 billion.
"Let's look at fiscal 2018, that's a snapshot of the bigger hole VA has to deal with," said Carl Blake, who works with Paralyzed Veterans of America. "That $3 billion has to be addressed somehow."
The task was made more difficult this week. At the same Senate committee hearing where Shulkin announced the funding gap, he also said he'd back off cuts in the budget that would've given more money to the CARE program.
Trump's proposal would have stripped $3.2 billion from the VA's Individual Unemployability program, which compensates disabled veterans who are unable to be employed because of their disabilities. The proposal was widely unpopular in the veterans community.
Shulkin told reporters that the VA and lawmakers would be holding private meetings to find other budget cuts, instead of the Individual Unemployability program.