WASHINGTON — House members as well as veterans’ advocates Thursday, criticized the Veterans Affairs Health Administration for lack of transparency in its spending on a program that offers veterans the chance to get health care from non-VA facilities, saying it could be a dangerous step toward privatizing veterans’ health care.

The president’s budget requests $186.5 billion for the Veterans Affairs Department in fiscal 2018, of which $104.3 billion is mandatory funding for VA medical facilities, military construction projects to improve the state of military housing and educational facilities, and VA healthcare technologies.

At Thursday’s hearing of the Subcommittee on Veterans Health, witnesses questioned VA spending on the Veterans Choice Program, which allows vets to access healthcare outside of VA facilities to ensure they can get timely care.

But critics said the choice to dramatically increase funding for the Veterans Choice Program will lead to privatization of VA healthcare. Instead, they said, the VA should focus on the failing VA medical facility infrastructure.

“The fact is the VA has not been fully forthcoming of what it needs for these purposes and they keep saying, ‘Well we have collection money available, we have carry over money available — just give us the transfer authority, we can make this work.’ That’s nonsense and we’ve grown weary of that nonsense,” said Carl Blake, associate executive director of government relations for the Paralyzed Veterans of America.

“What are they spending their money on — or better yet what are they not spending their money on?” Blake asked.

Poonam Alaigh, acting under secretary for health of the Veterans Affairs Health Administration, said the community care program “will not only improve access and provide greater convenience for veterans, but will also transform how VA delivers care within our facilities. Where VA excels, we want to make sure that the tools exist to continue to performing well in those areas.”

Since its inception, more than 1.7 million veterans have received care through the program and the VA is working to increase the number of providers through Choice, increasing the approximately 200,000 providers in 2015 to more than 430,000 as of March.

“Some have alleged that the increased funding for the veterans health administration in this budget goes primarily to community care programs, like Choice, rather than traditional in-house, which some claim is a dangerous step towards privatization … privatization is not the goal,’ said subcommittee Chairman Brad Wenstrup.

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