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NH senators warn Obama against defunding vets' 'choice card'

New Hampshire Sens. Jeanne ShaheenCynthia (Jeanne) Jeanne ShaheenBipartisan Senate gang to talk with Biden aide on coronavirus relief Bipartisan group of senators: The election is over Seven Senate races to watch in 2022 MORE (D) and Kelly AyotteKelly Ann AyotteBottom line Seven Senate races to watch in 2022 Bottom line MORE (R) this week voiced their opposition to a budget proposal that would let the Veterans Affairs Department defund a program allowing veterans to seek private medical care.

“We are disappointed that the administration is attempting to cut funding from a program that was enacted with overwhelming bipartisan support and that has not yet been properly implemented,” the lawmakers said in a letter to President Obama.

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“The administration’s proposal to defund the Veterans Choice Fund jeopardizes veterans’ access to care and undermines the principle at the heart of the program — veterans’ ability to choose where they receive care,” the pair wrote, adding they will “oppose all efforts" to interfere with the fund.
 
The administration’s fiscal 2016 VA budget request, unveiled on Monday, contains a provision that states the president will submit legislation to "reallocate a portion of Veterans Choice Program funding to support essential investments in VA system priorities in a fiscally-responsible, budget-neutral manner."

The program, often called the "choice card," was a pillar of legislation Congress approved last summer to overhaul the VA after a months-long scandal over patient wait times that were linked to a series of deaths.
 
Lawmakers allocated $10 billion for the effort, both to allow patients who had been waiting to see a doctor to get private care faster and to take pressure off the VA’s healthcare system.
 
It is unclear how many veterans have taken advantage of the private care option, though well over 8 million cards have been issued since Nov. 1.
 
VA Secretary Robert McDonald on Wednesday said the proposal was his idea and “wasn’t meant to be controversial.”
 
However, the joint letter shows there is growing unease about the proposal on Capitol Hill.
 
“We are concerned that this budget proposal is just the latest example of the administration’s reluctance to implement the choice card program as Congress intended,” said Shaheen and Ayotte, both members of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
 
The pair are also proposing legislation that would make the choice program permanent for veterans living in states without a full-service hospital, such as New Hampshire.