(Adds details on providing private care to veterans)
By David Lawder
WASHINGTON, June 10 The U.S. House of
Representatives voted unanimously on Tuesday to give thousands
of veterans emergency access to private care to address a crisis
that has embarrassed the Obama administration and worried
lawmakers in the run-up to November's mid-term elections.
So many lawmakers wanted to be on record supporting the bill
that a second vote was held for a few who missed the initial
tally, bringing the total to 426-0.
The Senate is considering a similar bill after the
government found clinics run by Veterans Affairs were hiding
long wait times, during which some veterans are said to have
Both measures would allow veterans access to private
healthcare providers at VA expense if they face a long wait or
if they live more than 40 miles (64 km) from a VA facility. The
House measure had initially specified a wait-time trigger of
more than 30 days, but the passed bill allows the VA to decide,
making it consistent with the Senate bill.
Representative Jeff Miller, a Republican who chairs the
House Veterans Affairs Committee, also had initially wanted the
private care access to be a permanent feature, but changed this
to agree with the Senate plan for a two-year trial period.
Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders,
an independent, had expressed concern that permanent access
would eventually lead to privatization of VA healthcare.
The VA operates the largest U.S. healthcare system, with 151
hospitals and 827 outpatient clinics serving 8.9 million
The vote came a day after the VA released an internal audit
that found more than 100,000 veterans were subjected to a wait
of 90 days or more for healthcare appointments, and widespread
instances of schemes to mask the delays to meet targets for
The deepening scandal prompted the resignation in late May
of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, a retired Army general wounded
three times in Vietnam.
The House bill also would ban bonuses for all employees for
the 2014 to 2016 fiscal years. Miller said this would free up
about $400 million a year that could be used to help pay for any
added costs for outside care.
But the House version also orders a top-to-bottom,
independent review of all VA healthcare operations, far beyond
the proposed review of appointment scheduling systems ordered in
the Senate measure.
Republicans, who control the House, said this review, was
important to understand the depth of the agency's problems.
House Speaker John Boehner said the issue goes "far beyond
phony wait lists," and said Republicans would find out how much
officials at VA headquarters in Washington knew about efforts at
VA hospitals and clinics to cover up long wait times.
"We need to understand just how sick this patient is before
we begin to prescribe some treatments," Boehner said of the VA
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said on Tuesday that the
Senate would vote on its VA bill within the next 48 hours.
(Reporting by David Lawder; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)