The Department of Veterans Affairs decal is seen outside the VA's headquarters in Washington, D.C.

The Department of Veterans Affairs decal is seen outside the VA's headquarters in Washington, D.C. (Carlos Bongioanni/Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON — Congress has approved a $3.3 billion budget fix at the Department of Veterans Affairs aimed at keeping payments for outside medical treatment flowing after Friday and keeping its nationwide network of hospitals open after Aug. 20.

The Senate passed a bill Thursday allowing the VA to take the money from a $10 billion emergency fund created last summer to help veterans caught up in the troubled health care system’s wait-time scandal. The House voted in favor of the measure Wednesday evening.

The bill now goes to President Barack Obama, who must make a decision before Saturday, when the VA has said it must halt payments for health care purchased outside its facilities unless it gets more money. The White House said Obama plans to sign it.

Lawmakers grumbled over the problem after a year of widespread dysfunction and slow progress toward reform at the VA, but moved quickly to avert a shutdown that could have affected millions of veterans.

“We are in this situation because of, quite frankly, gross ineptitude in planning that can only be characterized as management malpractice,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said.

The department realized in May that it had a massive budget shortfall caused by surging demand for care among veterans, which it said could not be solved without legal permission to dip into the $10 billion Veterans Choice fund.

Passage of the bill “is an important step for VA to be able to continue providing care to America’s Veterans and to meet the rising demand for our services,” VA spokeswoman Victoria Dillon wrote in a statement to Stars and Stripes.

Most of the $3.3 billion would be used to cover VA health care costs through the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30. The bill allows $500 million to be used for an expensive breakthrough hepatitis C drug, which offers a potential cure for the first time and is in demand among a veteran population with a high prevalence of the disease.

Secretary Bob McDonald testified to the House earlier this month that the money shortfall has been largely caused by an increase of about 7 million health care appointments over the past year and the drug costs. The new hepatitis drug Sovaldi can cost $84,000 for a 12-week treatment, though the VA has said it negotiated lower costs it would not publicly disclose.

If passed, the bill will effectively make the year-old Veterans Choice program permanent.

The program would become part of the annual VA budget and cover all non-VA health care. As part of the new fund, the department would be required to lay out all patient eligibility requirements, the process for authorization of care and reimbursement rates for health care outside the VA system, according to legislative documents.

The change would “consolidate VA’s uncoordinated and wasteful non-VA care programs into the Veterans Choice program,” Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said in a statement.

One year ago, Congress approved a $16.3 billion VA overhaul that included the $10 billion Veterans Choice program as a one-time, emergency expense to provide outside medical care to veterans who could not get treatment at the department’s own facilities due to long delays.

Federal audits had found that more than 57,000 veterans were waiting more than three months for VA health care at 731 hospitals and clinics across the country.

VA staff at most of those facilities had manipulated patient appointment data to hide those waits — a revelation that caused the biggest scandal in department history. Twitter: @Travis_Tritten

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