By Michael C. Bender
July 31 (Bloomberg) -- U.S. military veterans will have easier access to medical care under a rare bipartisan agreement the Senate cleared and Congress sent to President Barack Obama.
The measure, passed 91-3 today in the Senate and 420-5 yesterday in the House, 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 veterans of this country are entitled to quality and timely health care,” Senator Veterans Affairs Chairman Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent, said in a statement yesterday. “This legislation will take us a long way toward making good on that promise.”
Former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned in May after an inspector general’s 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, officials said.
The Senate on July 29 unanimously confirmed former Procter & Gamble Co. Chief Executive Officer Bob McDonald to lead the VA.
House Speaker John Boehner said this week that Republicans voted for 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.
“We have a serious problem at the Veterans Administration,” said Boehner, an Ohio Republican.
The Obama administration also welcomed the deal.
Increased payments in the agreement 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.
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.
“This bill improves the quality and accessibility of care for veterans and brings accountability by allowing VA to fire those senior managers who knew about the cover up and did nothing,” Representative Kyrsten Sinema, an Arizona Democrat, said in a statement.
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,” said House Republican Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, who is from eastern Washington state. “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.