Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin made two surprise announcements Wednesday before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee that should relieve some financial stress for more than 600,000 veterans.
First, Shulkin said he was dropping VA's appeal of the Staab case decided last year by the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. Last week, he said Staab had been wrongly decided, exposing VA to at least $2 billion in veteran claims for outside emergency care, money VA needed to provide promised services.
Pulling the appeal means VA intends to begin covering private sector emergency care for any VA-enrolled veteran, even if they have alternative health insurance that pays part of their emergency care costs. As many as 370,000 veterans with pending claims could benefit too, explained Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., who thanked Shulkin for changing his mind. Shulkin said Rounds and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., were right to sharply criticize the decision to appeal.
In Staab the appeals court ruled that VA intentionally failed to implement a 2010 law expanding outside emergency care coverage. It did so by continuing to deny reimbursement for non-VA emergent care if a veteran had any sort of alternative health insurance. Shulkin told Rounds that VA has completed draft regulations to implement the new emergency care benefit.
Shulkin's second surprise Wednesday was to tell Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., he will work with Congress to find a less hurtful way to fund his Choice replacement plan, CARE, than by administratively ending Individual Unemployability eligibility next year for 208,000 seriously disabled veterans age 62 or older.
The program allows veterans with VA disability ratings of 60 to 90 percent to receive enhanced compensation because they are unable to work. It qualifies veterans to receive disability pay as if they were 100 percent disabled. It adds an average of $1,600 to their monthly payments, a VA official told senators.
Shulkin said he reconsidered ending the program for older recipients "as I began to listen to veterans and their concerns."
Shulkin conceded that ending the benefit for elderly was a poor choice from a menu of options, telling Heller, "I am not going to support policies that hurt veterans."
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