As Trump searches for VA chief, key health care program set to run out of money

The seal of the Department of Veterans Affairs is seen in an auditorium on February 5, 2013 at the Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington.    AFP PHOTO/Mandel NGAN        (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Washington (CNN)As President Donald Trump prepares to name a new leader for the sprawling department of Veterans Affairs, officials at the department have been raising the alarm, saying that they'll run out of money for the Veterans Choice Program in the coming weeks.

The Choice program was a campaign priority of the President's and allows patients to seek medical services from private providers at the taxpayer's expense, but Congress has been at an impasse over a long-term fix amid disagreements over the program's cost and how much access the nation's veterans should have to private doctors.
Trump tweeted about the funding shortfall on Thursday, urging lawmakers to act to add funding swiftly.
"This spring marks 4yrs since the Phoenix VA crisis. We won't forget what happened to our GREAT VETS," Trump tweeted. "Choice is vital, but the program needs work & is running out of $. Congress must fix Choice Program by Memorial Day so VETS can get the care they deserve. I will sign immediately!"
    The legislation was not included in the federal budget bill that passed in March, after Democrats argued that the legislation was a step toward breaking up VA's health care system.
    On Thursday, Rep. Phil Roe, a Tennessee Republican and the chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, introduced legislation that would overhaul the agency's community care programs, expand caregiver benefits and initiate a system-wide review of the VA's facilities. The legislation includes $5.2 billion for the VA choice program.
    "This legislation must be passed, and if Congress fails to act veterans will pay for that failure," Roe said in a statement.
    The leaders of many veterans groups applauded the legislation Thursday.
    "Passing this bipartisan and bicameral bill is critical to ensuring veterans have timely access to the care they have earned and deserve," Keith Harman, the national commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said "Leaving politics at the door when it comes to veterans issues is what Congress was elected to do."
    Dan Caldwell, the executive director of Concerned Veterans for America, called the legislation "absolutely critical ... to ensure veterans don't lose access to critical care." The advocacy group backed by the Koch Brothers that has grown increasingly influential within the Trump administration.
    Last week, acting VA Secretary Robert Wilkie wrote to the chairs of the Senate and House veterans panels, saying that funding would run out "in approximately the first two weeks of June."
    Wilkie said in the letter that the Choice program requires another $1.3 billion to extend it through the fall, and as much as $3.6 billion to keep it running through the fiscal year 2019.
    "With funding for VA's Choice program set to run out soon, America's Veterans need Congress to come together to support this crucial program and pass legislation that will make it permanent," Wilkie said in a statement. "There is simply no denying how vital community providers are to VA's mission, as the Choice program accounts for an average of more than 30,000 appointments per day, and allows Veterans to get care when and where they need it."
    The new legislative push to fund the Choice program comes as Trump is meeting with potential new leaders for the VA after Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson, the White House physician, withdrew his nomination.
    Former Florida Rep. Jeff Miller, who met with Trump about the top VA job earlier this week, has been a strong proponent of expanding private care for veterans. As the chairman of the House Veterans panel, was one of the original architects of the Choice program in 2014.