On Thursday, the Senate voted 91-3 to approve a $17 billion compromise measure that would address the long patient wait times at Department of Veterans Affairs health care facilities, the New York Times reports (Weisman, New York Times, 7/31).
The legislation is expected to cost about $17 billion, including $12 billion in new emergency funding and $5 billion from spending cuts within the VA system.
The bill includes $10 billion to allow veterans facing long wait times or distances to seek private care outside the VA health system and $5 billion for VA to hire additional providers.
Veterans would be able to seek care at private facilities if they are not able to obtain an appointment at a VA health center within 30 days or if they live more than 40 miles from a VA center. VA still would coordinate much of the private care, including assisting with scheduling appointments and obtaining a copy of the health record from the medical visit.
In addition, the bill would:
- Give the VA secretary more power to fire top-level employees based on their performance;
- Extend a VA pilot program to treat veterans with brain injuries in private rehabilitation facilities and a program to assist veterans in rural areas far from VA medical facilities in accessing care;
- Provide $1.5 billion in funding for VA to lease 27 new facilities;
- Allow VA to provide counseling and other services to veterans who experienced sexual trauma during their time of service; and
- Require VA to use quality of care metrics rather than patient wait times as factors in employees' performance reviews.
The bill also would require VA to report to lawmakers on how the agency plans to upgrade its scheduling system. However, the legislation does not include funding to upgrade the system (California Healthline, 7/29).
Dissenting Senators Cite Cost
Republican Sens. Tom Coburn (Okla.), Bob Corker (Tenn.) and Jeff Sessions (Ala.) voted against the bill, saying it did not balance the new funding with any comparable spending cuts (Hicks/Halsey, Washington Post, 7/31).
Corker said the bill was fiscally irresponsible and argued that lawmakers should have waited until they had worked with the new VA secretary to identify needed and cost-effective reforms. "Our veterans deserve solutions to the deep-rooted problems plaguing the VA, and they also deserve a Congress that has the discipline to pay for legislation it passes," he said.
Obama Expected To Sign
According to the Wall Street Journal, there is not yet a schedule in place for submitting the bill to the White House. However, President Obama is expected to sign the measure when it reaches him (Kesling, Wall Street Journal, 7/31).