WASHINGTON — The House overwhelmingly passed a $17 billion emergency bill Wednesday that brings comprehensive reform of the troubled Department of Veterans Affairs health care system one step closer to reality.
The 420-5 vote shifted all attention toward the Senate, where a floor vote had yet to be scheduled with only days left before Congress leaves for its August recess.
Lawmakers struck a last-minute deal Monday that would inject $10 billion into expanding veteran access to outside health care providers and $5 billion into hiring new medical staff to ease long wait times at VA hospitals and clinics across the United States.
Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., who negotiated the legislative deal for the House, said veterans are suffering — some dying — in a VA health care system rife with widespread corruption and delays in care. He said the bill is progress toward relieving their pain and straightening out institutional dysfunction.
“The passage of this [bill] will improve access to care and accountability in a desperately broken bureaucracy,” said Miller, who chairs the House Veterans Affairs Committee.
The legislation would create a $10-billion Veterans Choice Fund in the U.S. Treasury that could be tapped to fund private treatment when beneficiaries cannot get a VA health care appointment within two weeks or live more than 40 miles from a VA facility.
“These reforms will allow veterans to vote with their feet” and seek other providers if they are not being served by the VA, said Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., who supported the bill.
It would spend $5 billion to hire primary and specialty care doctors, nurses, social workers and mental health professionals, and would fund 27 new VA medical facilities in states across the country out of the remaining $2 billion.
Under the proposal, senior executives could be fired at will by the VA secretary while having only sev-en days to appeal and the VA would face a top-to-bottom independent assessment of its hospital and clinics, which comprise the largest integrated medical system in the U.S.
Rep. Dan Benishek, R-Mich., a committee member and doctor who worked in the VA system, said the review would yield a step-by-step blueprint for a “lean, smart, 21st century” VA.
“This landmark effort is the best chance we’ve had in years to make meaningful changes to the way the VA operates,” Benishek said.
But the measure to fire VA senior executives drew criticism from the House whip, Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., who said management positions could be politicized by allowing a presidentially appointed VA secretary to remove and place employees arbitrarily.
Now, the VA reform bill faces the Senate, where it must pass a floor vote before becoming law.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., partnered with Miller on the compromise after divisions over the cost threatened to derail work on fixing the department.
Sanders hopes the bill will be scheduled for a vote Thursday, according to his staff.