Military.com

Trump Expected to Sign $2.1B VA Choice Extension on Saturday

Then-presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to veterans during a campaign stop at the Savannah Center on March 13, 2016, in West Chester, Ohio. John Minchillo/AP
Then-presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to veterans during a campaign stop at the Savannah Center on March 13, 2016, in West Chester, Ohio. John Minchillo/AP

President Donald Trump is expected to sign into law Saturday a $2.1 billion, six-month extension of the Veterans Choice Program, which allows veterans to seek private and community health care.

Also ready for Trump's signature are bills that have passed the House and Senate to make the GI Bill a lifetime benefit for new recruits and to speed up the VA's appeals process.

VA Secretary Dr. David Shulkin told The Washington Post that Trump is expected to sign the Choice bill Saturday, most likely at his Bedminster, N.J., golf course and estate, but it is unclear whether he would also use the occasion to sign the new GI Bill and the appeals legislation.

The Choice program was enacted in 2014 in response to the wait times scandals at the Phoenix VA, but it was due to run out of money in mid-August. The $2.1 billion in new money will extend the program for six months; authorize 28 major VA medical facility leases; and enhance the recruitment, retention and training of the VA workforce.

Shulkin and lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have said that the extra six months will give them time to work on reforms to make the Choice program permanent and expand opportunities for veterans to seek private care.

Shulkin has said that one of his top priorities is the elimination of the current rule that veterans must live 40 miles from the nearest VA facility or wait more than 30 days for an appointment to be eligible for Choice.

The Harry W. Colmery Veterans Educational Assistance Act, known as the Forever GI Bill, eliminated the 15-year time limit for the use of the education benefits under the post-9/11 GI Bill.

Under the new bill, recruits joining after Jan. 1, 2018, will have a lifetime education benefit. The 15-year time limit will still apply to current post-Sept. 11, 2001, veterans. The new bill is not available to veterans who served before 9/11.

Also under the new bill, Purple Heart recipients would receive full GI Bill eligibility, and the bill would restore eligibility to service members whose college or institution closes mid-semester.

On Friday morning, the House gave final routine passage to the Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act, which had already passed the Senate, to speed the process in which veterans can appeal their disability claims and disability ratings.

According to the House Veterans Affairs Committee, the bill would create three "lanes" for appeals.

In the "Local Higher Level Review Lane," an adjudicator would review the same evidence considered by the original claims processor; in the "New Evidence Lane," the veteran could submit new evidence for review and have a hearing; in the "Board Lane," jurisdiction for the appeal would transfer immediately to the Board of Veterans' Appeals.

With passage of the appeals bill Friday, "three bills to reform and improve VA are now on the brink of becoming law," Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said in a statement.

"I applaud the Senate for their action last week on these bills to address the appeals backlog, expand and extend the GI Bill, and ensure veterans can continue accessing care through the Choice Program," Roe said.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.