| WASHINGTON, July 31
WASHINGTON, July 31 The U.S. Senate late on
Thursday overwhelmingly gave final congressional approval to a
$16.3 billion plan to ease long healthcare delays at the
scandal-plagued Veterans Affairs Department, adding the bulk of
the cost to the federal deficit.
The 91-3 vote sends the measure to President Barack Obama to
be signed into law just before Congress starts a five-week
The plan, which contains $10 billion in new emergency
spending that is not offset by any budget savings, aims to clear
months-long waiting lists for healthcare appointments at VA
hospitals and clinics across the country.
It allows veterans access to private doctors at the
department's expense if they are forced to wait more than 30
days for an appointment or live more than 40 miles (65 km) from
a VA facility.
It allocates $10 billion to pay for this, but allows the
private care arrangement for three years.
It is unclear how long that money will last. The
Congressional Budget Office has estimated a $35 billion cost
through 2017, and the ultimate price tag depends on how many
veterans opt for private care and how quickly the VA can build
up its internal treatment capacity.
The agency has been rocked by scandal over cover-ups of
months-long waiting times in dozens of cities, prompting the
resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki in late May.
In Phoenix, doctors have alleged that some 40 veterans died
as their names languished on secret waiting lists while
officials misrepresented wait-time data to meet targets for
"If there was ever a definition of an emergency, that
emergency faces us today because our veterans are not receiving
the care that we owe them as a nation," said Senator John
McCain, an Arizona Republican. "There are veterans who are dying
as we speak for lack of care."
The measure, passed by the House of Representatives on
Wednesday by a 420-5 vote, also grants newly confirmed VA
Secretary Bob McDonald sweeping new authority to fire
The former Procter & Gamble Co chief executive will have
significant new resources at hand to boost VA's capability,
including $5 billion to hire more doctors and nurses and more
than $1.3 billion to open 27 new clinics in 18 states.
(Editing by Eric Walsh)