July 25, 2017
Leo Shane III | Army Times
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Tuesday evening promised to triple the number of veterans “seeing the doctor of their choice” in coming months as part of an ongoing, ambitious reform plan at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The comments, which came at a veterans rally in Ohio, are likely to again stoke concerns among administration critics of large-scale privatization of VA responsibilities.
At the start of the year, almost a third of all veterans’ medical appointments scheduled through the department were with doctors working outside the VA system, in private clinics. White House officials have previously promised an overhaul of those outside care programs in coming months, with an eye towards sending even more patients to community physicians.
VA Secretary David Shulkin has repeatedly pushed back against concerns that those moves amount to a dismantling of the department, and promising lawmakers repeatedly that both he and Trump aren’t working on a large-scale shift of taxpayer funds outside the government health care system.
But Trump on Tuesday told the assembled crowd that since he took office in January, “we have nearly doubled the number of veterans given approvals to see the doctor of their choice.” He added that “we’re going to be tripling up very shortly.”
The comments appear to refer to the VA’s controversial Choice program, authorized by Congress in the wake of the 2014 department wait time scandal. Usage of that program has risen dramatically since Shulkin and Trump took office.
In an editorial in USA Today this week, Shulkin said that outside care programs for the first half of 2017 VA was up 26 percent over the same period last year. That totals more than 18 million veterans medical appointments being paid for outside of VA facilities.
But it falls well short of Trump’s “doubling” boast. So does the proposed fiscal 2018 budget, which calls for a 9 percent boost in outside care funding, totaling almost $1 billion.
In his Tuesday remarks, Trump also claimed credit for modernizing VA medical records — “the system is fixed, finally, after all of these years” — even though Shulkin in June announced only the start of a multi-year process to integrate those records with Defense Department files.
And Trump praised the assembled veterans for their military sacrifices but added, “we haven’t had enough victory, but we’re having it now. We’re seeing it.”
It’s unclear what military victories Trump may have been referencing with the remarks. U.S. forces and coalition allies in the Middle East have made significant advances against Islamic State group forces in recent months, but many of those campaigns were begun under the previous administration.
The speech did highlight several other military and veterans accomplishments that were more clear.
They included the passage of sweeping new accountability legislation governing VA employees, new same-day mental health services at every VA medical center, and new public wait-times data for every VA health facility.
“You’ve put America first every day of your lives,” Trump told the crowd. “And now we have a VA that will truly put our veterans first.”