Senate passes bill aimed at fixing veteran healthcare delays

WASHINGTON Wed Jun 11, 2014 9:36pm EDT

U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) (R) talks to reporters after a closed-door Senate Armed Services Committee briefing on the Bergdahl prisoner swap at the U.S. Capitol in Washington June 10, 2014. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) (R) talks to reporters after a closed-door Senate Armed Services Committee briefing on the Bergdahl prisoner swap at the U.S. Capitol in Washington June 10, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Senate on Wednesday overwhelmingly passed a bipartisan measure aimed at easing healthcare delays for veterans by giving them more access to private care and allowing the Department of Veterans Affairs to open more clinics and hire more medical staff.

The 93-3 vote in the Democratic-led Senate followed unanimous passage on Tuesday in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives of a similar bill to address a crisis that has embarrassed the Obama administration and prompted Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki to quit.

Lawmakers must now iron out differences between the House and Senate versions before voting on a final package that could be signed into law by President Barack Obama.

The Senate measure matches several provisions passed by the House to address a crisis unfolding in the run-up to November's congressional elections.

The senators who authored the bill emphasized the need for urgency. It was crafted by Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont, and Republican John McCain of Arizona, a state where 40 veterans are said to have died while waiting months for appointments at VA clinics in Phoenix.

"If there is a definition of emergency, I would say that this legislation fits," McCain said. "We've got to get a good bill on the president's desk next week," Sanders said.

Before passing the bill, senators voted 75-19 to turn aside objections to its cost raised by Republican Jeff Sessions of Alabama. "I feel strongly we've got to do the right thing for our veterans. But I don't think we should create a blank check, an unlimited entitlement program, now," Sessions said.

Sessions and two other Republicans, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Bob Corker of Tennessee, voted against the bill's passage.

Provisions passed by both chambers would allow veterans to visit private doctors at VA expense if they are forced to endure long waits for appointments at VA clinics or live more than 40 miles (64 km) away, and would give the VA secretary more power to fire or demote employees for poor performance.

The Senate measure also matches earlier House-passed legislation that authorizes the VA to sign leases for 26 new clinics in 18 states.

The bill would require an emergency supplemental appropriation, which Sanders estimated at under $2 billion, mainly for the opening of the 26 clinics.

Among differences between the House and Senate versions are that the House proposes a top-to-bottom review of all aspects of VA's health care system, while the Senate calls for a review of appointment scheduling practices and systems. The Senate version offers protections for VA employees not in the House bill.

The VA operates the largest U.S. healthcare system, with 151 hospitals and 827 outpatient clinics serving 8.9 million veterans.

The FBI said on Wednesday it has opened a criminal investigation of an Arizona VA office.

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Comments (7)
TheRightThing wrote:
Passing legislation isn’t going to fix anything.

Jun 11, 2014 10:12pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
sspider wrote:
Congress thinks they can fix anything by just writing a new bill. We are up to our armpits in bills that don’t mean a thing. If they wanted to change the way the public views their ineptitude, they would set Social Security back on track and pass a bill to make it illegal for Congress to touch/borrow those funds. They would strengthen our immigration laws and properly secure our borders. Our security at the southern border is sooooo good that children are coming across in droves. Lip service….that’s all Congress is good for. Oh, and pointing that finger at the other guy.

Jun 11, 2014 11:04pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
legalatina wrote:
Illegal alien youth at the border are receiving faster and cheaper medical care than our Veterans at the V.A. Shameful and unacceptable.

Jun 11, 2014 11:08pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
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