Ending CHOICE is a Dead End for Veterans
President Trump calls Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin his “hundred-to-nothing man” because Shulkin’s confirmation got the votes of all 100 senators. That unanimity is turning out to be a red flag. Shulkin isn’t delivering 100 percent for vets.
He told Congress last week that he plans to end the CHOICE program, a setback for vets stuck on waitlists for medical care. Shulkin, the only Obama administration holdover named to Trump’s Cabinet, is capitulating to the public-employee unions and their Democratic lackeys in Congress who oppose allowing vets to leave the VA and get treated by a civilian doctor on Uncle Sam’s tab.
Shulkin is also abandoning the goal of eliminating veteran homelessness, saying “we do have to respect the wishes of people who are adults and able to make their own decisions.” That’s nuts, Mr. Secretary. Homelessness is not a valid “choice.” Vets on the streets need housing and mental-health care, not left-wing gibberish about alternative lifestyles.
To be fair, Shulkin is also making positive changes. But if he wants to produce the turnaround Trump promised, he can’t kowtow to the left’s PC demands. They had eight years to improve the VA, and it’s in shambles.
Last week, Shulkin told Congress about his new program to replace CHOICE, which will sunset in September unless Congress acts. Trouble is, under Shulkin’s plan, vets won’t be in the driver’s seat, able to decide whether to see a civilian doctor. That’s a betrayal.
CHOICE was enacted in 2014 after revelations that ailing vets were dying on secret waitlists manipulated by VA bureaucrats. The program was billed as putting “veterans in control of how, when and where” they get care. Vets who live more than 40 miles from a VA facility or have to wait longer than 30 days for care can elect to see a civilian doctor instead.
Unfortunately, fine print made it hard for vets to qualify. That was deliberate. The CHOICE program’s co-author, Sen. Bernie Sanders, designed it to protect union jobs, which depend on vets staying at the VA. No one caters to public-sector unions quite like Sanders.
Shulkin should be improving the CHOICE program. Instead, he’s backtracking on CHOICE entirely.
On June 7, Sen. Mike Rounds, (R-SD) a member of the Veterans Affairs Committee, grilled Shulkin about whether his new program would still allow vets to make their own decision to seek civilian care. After a lot of double talk, Shulkin admitted the VA doctor would decide. That’s like claiming to support school choice but empowering the public school to select which students may go elsewhere.
Sanders and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) vowed to fight any programs that place vets in civilian medical care. Shulkin cowered, promising to block an “unfettered” voucher program. He assured the senators that “the whole idea is to improve the VA, not to get more care in the community.”
Bad news for vets. At some 30 VA facilities, vets are waiting 60 days or more to get a mental-health or primary-care appointment — a delay that can kill.
In fairness to Shulkin, he’s got pluses. He’s pushing legislation to make it possible to fire VA executives for the theft, lying and dereliction of duty that bleed taxpayers of billions annually and cause ailing vets to die. Shulkin’s predecessor insisted “you can’t fire your way to excellence” and refused to even ask Congress for power to discipline wrongdoers. To Shulkin’s credit, he’s demanding “a new set of tools.”
He’ll soon have some. The bill, approved by the Senate last Tuesday and the House Tuesday, would prevent fired VA executives from appealing to the notorious Merit System Protection Board, which protects everything but merit.
But don’t buy the hype that this is “the strongest accountability measure” possible. Even under these reforms, the VA can’t take back bonuses and pensions unless a fired employee is convicted of a job-related felony.
Trump is applying the brakes, but the federal gravy train is still rolling.
Betsy McCaughey is a senior fellow at the London Center for Policy Research