WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s posthumous slam on Sen. John McCain flips reality on its head when it comes to who gave veterans the option to see a private doctor at public expense.
“McCain didn’t get the job done for our great vets,” Trump said Wednesday. “I got it done.”
Actually, McCain got it done.
Trump routinely takes full credit for enacting the Choice program, suggesting he had fulfilled a campaign promise to provide private-sector care for veterans while ignoring the fact that it was signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2014. This time, his boast came as part of a broad-brush denunciation of McCain, the senator from Arizona, Vietnam war naval aviator and tortured prisoner of war who died in August of brain cancer.
Trump: “The vets were on my side because I got the job done. I got Choice, and I got accountability. … For many decades, they couldn’t get it done. It was never done. I got it. Five months ago, I got it done. Choice.” — remarks at an Army tank factory in Lima, Ohio.
The facts: What Trump got done was an expansion of the program achieved by McCain and Sen. Bernie Sanders, most prominent among the lawmakers who advanced the legislation signed by Obama.
McCain was a co-sponsor of the 2014 legislation to overhaul the Department of Veterans Affairs following the scandal at VA’s medical center in Phoenix, where some veterans died while waiting months for appointments for medical care. He was a key negotiator for the legislation establishing the Veterans Choice program, working with Sanders, the co-author of the bill. Sanders was then chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.
McCain didn’t rest after the law was enacted. He fought to expand the program and achieved that, too, in his last months.
Congress approved the expansion in May, and Trump signed the legislation in June. It’s named after three veterans who served in Congress.
One of them is McCain.
It’s called the John S. McCain III, Daniel K. Akaka, and Samuel R. Johnson VA Maintaining Internal Systems and Strengthening Integrated Outside Networks Act of 2018.
Trump: “Instead of waiting in line for two days, two weeks, two months, people waiting on line — they’re not very sick, by the time they see a doctor, they are terminally ill — we give them Choice. If you have to wait for any extended period of time, you go outside, you go to a local doctor, we pay the bill, you get yourself better, go home to your family — and we got it passed. We got it done.”
The facts: As he does routinely, Trump exaggerated what’s been accomplished with his expansion.
Veterans still must wait for weeks before they can get private care outside the VA system.
The program currently allows veterans to see doctors outside VA if they must wait more than 30 days for an appointment or drive more than 40 miles (65 kilometers) to a VA facility. Under new rules to take effect in June, veterans are to have that option for a private doctor if their VA wait is only 20 days (28 for specialty care) or their drive is only 30 minutes.
But the expanded Choice eligibility may do little to provide immediate help. That’s because veterans often must wait even longer for an appointment in the private sector. Last year, then-Secretary David Shulkin said VA care is “often 40 percent better in terms of wait times” compared with the private sector. In 2018, 34 percent of all VA appointments were with outside physicians, down from 36 percent in 2017.
The VA also must resolve long-term financing because of congressional budget caps after the White House opposed new money to pay for the program. As a result, lawmakers could be forced later this year to limit the program or slash core VA or other domestic programs.
Also key to the program’s success is an overhaul of VA’s electronic medical records to allow seamless sharing of medical records with private physicians, a process expected to take up to 10 years. VA Secretary Robert Wilkie has said full implementation of the expanded Choice program is “years” away.