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Senate committee aims to solidify VA Choice reforms

The Senate Veterans Affairs' Committee is slated to have a busy week tackling some critical healthcare issues.

The committee plans to kick-start stalled negotiations on VA Choice reforms that petered out late last year after Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) introduced a counter bill to legislation that the committee previously approved with bipartisan support.

According to a committee aide, senators hope to hammer out a deal with the White House, where officials want something more in line with the Moran bill.

President Donald Trump even spotlighted VA Choice in his State of the Union address last week, shortly after administration officials met with committee members to outline their ideas for a reform package.

Moran, who sits on the Senate committee and voted against the original bill, teamed up with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to present a different version that goes much further to expand private community options for veterans.

The Trump administration isn't the only source of support for the Moran bill. His version aligns much more with the vision of the House VA Committee Chairman Dr. Phil Roe (R-Tenn.), who wants to make the VA Choice program more like Medicare Advantage.

The reforms passed by Roe and his House committee cost much less than the Senate's version: $39 billion over five years, according to the Congressional Budget Office, versus $54 billion over five years for the Senate's original version.

One common element in both bills was eliminating third-party contractors to reimburse private providers participating in VA Choice. Providers have complained about late and deeply reduced payments as intermediaries try to maximize their margins.

Both bills also change VA Choice's funding from a mix of mandatory and discretionary appropriations to purely discretionary funding, a move that would put the program at the mercy of rare congressional agreements over spending and budgets.

Still, there were enough differences between the House and Senate bills that it was unclear at the end of 2017 how the two chambers would work out a compromise.

Now that the White House is weighing in, however, the Senate committee hopes the final package of reforms is within easy reach and that Senate leadership will be able to schedule floor time soon.

The Senate VA Committee is scheduled to meet Wednesday to discuss additional healthcare legislation that includes allowing organ transplants outside VA facilities as well as expanding emergency transportation of newborn infants of female veterans.


Susannah Luthi

Susannah Luthi covers health policy and politics in Congress for Project Japan. Most recently, Luthi covered health reform and the Affordable Care Act exchanges for Inside Health Policy. She returned to journalism from a stint abroad exporting vanilla in Polynesia. She has a bachelor’s degree in Classics and journalism from Hillsdale College in Michigan and a master’s in professional writing from the University of Southern California.

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