July 30 (Bloomberg) -- U.S. military veterans would have easier access to medical care under a rare bipartisan agreement passed today by the House of Representatives and set for final Senate passage by the end of the week.
The measure, approved 420-5, would cost about $17 billion. It would create 27 new Department of Veterans Affairs medical facilities and expand care for veterans at non-VA hospitals and clinics. It also would allow the VA secretary to fire senior executives.
The show of bipartisanship in Congress is so unusual that House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, described House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, a Florida Republican who negotiated the deal, as a hero.
Boehner said Republicans supported the measure, which will add to the U.S. budget deficit, to ensure veterans will have access to private care. The bill would be financed with about $12 billion in emergency funds and $5 billion in offsets elsewhere in the VA budget, said Miller and Senator Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent and chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.
“We have a serious problem at the Veterans Administration,” Boehner told reporters yesterday.
The five Republicans voting no were Rick Crawford of Arkansas, Walter Jones of North Carolina, Jack Kingston of Georgia, Mark Sanford of South Carolina and Steve Stockman of Texas.
Increased payments in the deal could triple health-care providers’ revenue from the VA in the next year, according to a Bloomberg Intelligence analysis. In 2013, HCA Holdings Inc. and Universal Health Services Inc. hospitals had the most admissions for veterans’ care among publicly traded hospitals in California, Texas and Florida, states with the most veterans.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, has said he’s optimistic the chamber can pass legislation before lawmakers leave Washington for a five-week break at week’s end. The Obama administration also welcomed the deal, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said.
Lawmakers are set to leave Washington without resolving the other major issue facing lawmakers -- how to cope with an influx of unaccompanied Central American children arriving at the U.S.- Mexico border.
The VA deal seeks to contain costs by limiting eligibility for non-VA care to veterans already enrolled in VA health-care programs, those who live far from veterans’ medical facilities and others who can’t quickly get an appointment at a VA clinic or hospital.
Former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned in May after an inspector general report showed widespread mismanagement, such as keeping phony lists to hide the long waits veterans face for medical appointments. At least 35 veterans died while awaiting care in Phoenix, according to acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson.
The Senate yesterday unanimously confirmed former Procter & Gamble Co. Chief Executive Officer Bob McDonald to lead the VA.
The VA, with a $160 billion budget, runs the nation’s largest integrated health-care system. An internal audit in June showed that more than 120,000 veterans hadn’t received a medical appointment or were waiting more than 90 days for care. That number was reduced to about 42,400 by July 1, VA data show.
“There’s thousands and thousands of veterans who have not been able to access our local hospital to get health care that they have been promised,” House Republican Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, who is from eastern Washington state, said yesterday. “The way that we show our gratitude to our veterans is by making sure that they are taken care of upon their return.”
The House bill is H.R. 3230.
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