Moving with new alacrity, senators on Wednesday overwhelmingly approved a bill that would let veterans seek health care outside the VA if faced with long wait times and would give the department secretary more flexibility to fire senior executives, as lawmakers try to enforce accountability.
The bill passed on a 93-3 vote after an expedited debate and no amendments. Sponsored by Sens. Bernard Sanders, Vermont independent, and John McCain, Arizona Republican, it is similar to legislation that passed the House on Wednesday, and Mr. Sanders said he thinks the two chambers will be able to work out a compromise quickly.
“I am absolutely confident that working with [House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff] Miller and ranking member [Michael H.] Michaud, we can bridge the differences and send the president a bill that he can sign in the very near future,” he said on the Senate floor.
But the cost figure could prove to be a problem. The Congressional Budget Office said the three-year program will cost $35 billion and would be even higher but for the fact that it will be only partially functional in the early years.
The CBO said it expects veterans to flock to take advantage of the enhanced care.
Mr. Sanders said the cost is a small price to pay to take care of veterans, considering the larger expense of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
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“Those wars will, it is estimated, cost between $3 [trillion] and 6 trillion by the time we can take of the last veteran. If we can spend that amount of money to go to war on an emergency basis, surely we can spend one-tenth of that amount to take care of the men and women who fought in those wars,” he said.
The Senate bill would allow veterans who faced a long wait time for an appointment or who lived more than 40 miles from a Veterans Affairs facility to seek care at a provider of their choice through 2016, when the provision expires.
Senators introduced the legislation in response to reports that more than 57,000 veterans were waiting more than 90 days for an initial appointment. An internal report at the VA also found that 70 percent of VA facilities had some type of unofficial wait list, suggesting a systemic problem of employees cooking the books to make wait times appear shorter and earn bonuses.
The Senate bill would give the next VA secretary more power to fire executives with an expedited appeal process to prevent firings because of politics, race or gender. The bill also would let the department lease 26 new major medical facilities across the country, hire more doctors and nurses, and expand G.I. Bill benefits for spouses of service members who died in battle.
Republican Sens. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, Bob Corker of Tennessee and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin were the only no votes.
Mr. Sessions said the bill would bust the budget caps set in December since the cost is not offset with budget cuts elsewhere.
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The House bill introduced by Mr. Miller, Florida Republican, passed the House 421-0 on Wednesday. The plan would let veterans go to an outside provider if they waited longer than 30 days for an appointment or lived more than 40 miles from a Veterans Affairs facility, similar to the Senate bill.
Mr. Miller’s bill also bans bonuses for all VA employees through fiscal 2016, mandates reporting to the congressional veterans committees and requires the Office of Management and Budget to let officials use any savings from lost bonuses within the department.
The House has already separately passed a provision to give the VA secretary more firing power, but the Senate bill gives executives some more ability to appeal the decision.