President Donald Trump signed into law Saturday legislation that extends a program allowing veterans to receive private health care.
The bill, which allocates $2.1 billion for the six-month extension of the Choice Program of the Department of Veterans Affairs, was signed by the president at his private golf club in Bedminister, New Jersey, where he is on a 17-day working vacation, according to the White House.
The program, which was set to run out of funds earlier than expected in mid-August, pays for veteran visits to private doctors if they are facing lengthy waiting periods or travel times. The program was created in 2014 in response to a scandal at the VA hospital in Phoenix, Arizona, where patient wait times had been manipulated.
VA Secretary Dr. David Shulkin has made it a priority to eliminate a rule requiring veterans to live at least 40 miles from the nearest VA facility or wait more than 30 days for an appointment to be eligible for the Choice program.
The law also authorizes an additional $1.8 for the VA to lease 28 major medical facilities and to strengthen a program overseeing the recruitment and training of VA employees.
Congress passed the bipartisan legislation before it began its August recess, but not before raising concerns among veterans groups and Democratic lawmakers about the trend toward privatization of the VA.
Several veterans groups, including Disabled American Veterans and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, expressed concern to Congress in a letter on July 26.
"If new funding is directed only or primarily to private sector 'choice' care without any adequate investment to modernize [the] VA, the viability of the entire system will soon be in danger," the groups said.
Shulkin has maintained the administration is not trying to privatize the VA, but to modernize and strengthen the agency's operations.
"President Trump is dedicated to maintaining a stronger VA, and we will not allow VA to be privatized on our watch," Shulkin wrote in an op-ed published July 24 in USA Today. "What we do want is a VA system that is even stronger and better than it is today. To achieve that goal, VA needs a strong and robust community care program."