President Donald Trump signed bipartisan legislation Wednesday that eliminates an expiration measure enacted by the 2014 Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act.
Flanked by veterans at an Oval Office ceremony, the president signed the bill to extend the Choice program, which was to expire on August 7, and allow the expenditure of the remaining $950 million in the program.
Conservatives calling for privatization say the VA provides medical services to only about 45 percent of veterans, and they point to delays and inefficiencies dogging the current system.
The program was to have expired in August.
In a statement, VA Secretary David Shulkin said the move is needed "to ensure we honor our commitment to enhance the health and well-being of veterans".
The Family Caregiver Program, mandated by Congress in 2010, was created to help support family members caring for seriously-wounded veterans in the post-9/11 era.
"Veterans in need of routine health care services should not have to wait in line for weeks to get an appointment when they can visit community health centers like MinuteClinic to receive timely and convenient care", he said.
"The idea of having seven, eight ways of doing the same thing is part of the problem, because it's confusing to veterans, it's confusing to the community providers", VA Deputy Undersecretary Dr. Baligh Yehia said a year ago.
A year ago a congressionally mandated panel of experts found the Choice program was inefficient, but recommended establishing a community-based healthcare system that would include private doctors.
He said Republicans, Democrats and Independents supported the bill that he says will begin to fix the Choice Program. With this law, veterans will be able to continue utilizing the Choice program to seek care in the community while we work with President Trump to improve the program and bring wholesale reform to the VA. Congress would have to approve any changes to the VA health system. He said more work is needed, but called the legislation "an important first step". "And I think we'll get more providers jumping on board, and we'll get more veterans using it, if the time to set up those appointments is reduced dramatically".