Senate passes $16.3B veterans health care bill

Senate passes $16.3B veterans health care bill

VETERANS AFFAIRS:Bob Brown, an 87-year-old World War II veteran from Perry Kan., speaks with U.S. Rep. Lynn Jenkins, left, and U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, right, during their visit to the Colmery-O'Neil Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Friday, June 13, in Topeka, Kan. Some Kansas veterans can't get medical appointments at U.S. Veterans Affairs facilities and are having scheduled checkups canceled as the dates approach, the two members of the state's congressional delegation said after touring the in Topeka VA medical center. Photo: Associated Press/John Hanna

By David Lawder

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Senate late on Thursday overwhelmingly gave final congressional approval to a $16.3 billion plan to ease long health care delays at the scandal-plagued Veterans Affairs Department, adding the bulk of the cost to the federal deficit.

The 91-3 vote sends the measure to President Barack Obama to be signed into law just before Congress starts a five-week summer recess.

The plan, which contains $10 billion in new emergency spending that is not offset by any budget savings, aims to clear months-long waiting lists for health care appointments at VA hospitals and clinics across the country.

It allows veterans access to private doctors at the department’s expense if they are forced to wait more than 30 days for an appointment or live more than 40 miles from a VA facility.

It allocates $10 billion to pay for this, but allows the private care arrangement for three years.

It is unclear how long that money will last. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated a $35 billion cost through 2017, and the ultimate price tag depends on how many veterans opt for private care and how quickly the VA can build up its internal treatment capacity.

The agency has been rocked by scandal over cover-ups of months-long waiting times in dozens of cities, prompting the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki in late May.

In Phoenix, doctors have alleged that some 40 veterans died as their names languished on secret waiting lists while officials misrepresented wait-time data to meet targets for bonus compensation.

“If there was ever a definition of an emergency, that emergency faces us today because our veterans are not receiving the care that we owe them as a nation,” said Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican. “There are veterans who are dying as we speak for lack of care.”

The measure, passed by the House of Representatives on Wednesday by a 420-5 vote, also grants newly confirmed VA Secretary Bob McDonald sweeping new authority to fire poor-performing employees.

The former Procter & Gamble Co chief executive will have significant new resources at hand to boost VA’s capability, including $5 billion to hire more doctors and nurses and more than $1.3 billion to open 27 new clinics in 18 states.

(Editing by Eric Walsh)

Recent Headlines

in Black Friday, National

WATCH: How holiday shopping can help charities


In the frenzy of holiday shopping, consumers are doing more than getting great deals, they’re also using coupons to help raise money for a number of worthy causes.

in Black Friday, National

Thanksgiving getaway: Cheap gas, high security


Millions of Americans embarked on their annual Thanksgiving travels on Wednesday, with security at airports, New York City's parade festivities and other venues expected to be heightened amid jitters after the Paris attacks.

in Sports

Rangers replace Maple Leafs atop hockey’s most valuable list


The Rangers, who return to the top of the rankings for the first time since 2004, were valued at $1.2 billion

in National

2015 to be the hottest year in history


This year will be the hottest on record and 2016 could be hotter due to the El Niño weather pattern, the World Meteorological Organization said.

in National, World

Many House Republicans want refugee restrictions in spending bill


Nearly one-third of the Republicans in the House of Representatives signed a letter calling on party leaders to ensure that a must-pass spending bill block any use of federal funding to resettle refugees from Syria and nearby countries.