WASHINGTON — Public universities nationwide would be forced to accept in-state rates for veterans' tuition regardless of where students live and -- in a measure inspired by the Pittsburgh Legionnaires' disease outbreak -- VA hospitals would face stricter requirements for reporting infectious diseases.
The measures sailed through the House late Monday with a unanimous vote on a bill now headed to the Senate.
Members of the Pennsylvania congressional delegation had been fighting hard for the infectious-disease reporting requirements, saying that the kind of accountability and transparency it provides could have saved lives at the Pittsburgh VA hospital, where at least five deaths and 22 illnesses were attributed to Legionella bacteria that managers knew about but failed to report.
"The Legionnaires' outbreak was entirely preventable except for the gross mismanagement and negligence of a few key officials," said Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair. "Timely reporting and transparency requires adherence to the strongest standards followed by quick action."
Monday's legislation will go a long way to help, he and other Pennsylvania members said. It allows state health agencies to assess unspecified penalties for failure to comply with reporting requirements.
It's a common-sense overhaul that will require VA hospitals to follow the same rules as other health care facilities, said Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, whose district includes the VA hospital.
"The investigation into the Legionnaires' disease outbreak in Pittsburgh revealed a significant gap in our nation's contagious disease monitoring system," he said.
On Monday, Congress began to close that gap, members said.
"It fixes one of the flaws" uncovered in a federal investigation into the outbreak, Mr. Murphy said. "Public health officials will now know when a disease outbreak occurs and can take appropriate action."
Reps. Mike Kelly, R-Butler, and Keith Rothfus, R-Sewickley, also spoke in favor of the disease-reporting requirements.
Members from other states focused their comments on another measure in the bill -- one that helps make good on Congress' 2008 promise to help veterans go to college for free at public universities.
Often, they do. But sometimes veterans move to new states after their military service and find that payments under the Post-9/11 GI Bill don't fully cover higher tuition rates charged to out-of-state students.
The average in-state tuition at four-year public colleges is $8,655, while out-of-state rates average $21,706, according to the College Board, a nonprofit that seeks to improve access to education.
That's the difference between a free education and a hefty debt, said Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee.
His bill directs the Veterans Administration to disapprove payments to public universities that charge out-of-state tuition to veterans.
"The men and women who served this nation did not only defend the citizens of their own home states but citizens of all 50 states. The educational benefits they receive should reflect the same reality," Mr. Miller said during a floor speech Monday night.
Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., also urged passage.
"In order to fulfill their military obligations, service members must uproot their families and periodically move around the country. This makes it difficult to establish residence for purposes of in-state tuition rates when veterans seek to use their GI Bill benefits," he said. "By providing all veterans with in-state tuition rates, House Resolution 357 makes it easier for veterans to choose the educational institution that best serves their needs."
The Senate is expected to take up companion legislation later this week.
Twenty-two states already have their own laws prohibiting their public universities from charging veterans out-of-state rates. Washington, D.C., veterans -- who have no home "state" -- already pay in-state tuition at public universities.
In Pennsylvania, such a measure unanimously passed the House last spring and could be taken up by the state Senate in the coming months.