A bill to reform the beleaguered Veterans Affairs health care system cleared the Senate by a wide bipartisan vote on Thursday evening. The law now heads to President Obama's desk just before lawmakers depart for their August recess.
The $16.3 billion proposal, which passed by a margin of 91-3, includes $10 billion to allow veterans who are unable to receive a timely appointment within the VA system to seek care from outside providers. It also includes $5 billion to allow the VA to hire more doctors and nurses to handle a greater caseload, and approximately $1.3 billion to finance leases for 27 new VA facilities across the country.
The bill was the product of negotiations between the chairmen of the House and Senate veterans affairs committees. It passed the House on Wednesday by a margin of 420-5.
Republicans were pushing to allow veterans to seek care from private or non-profit hospitals outside the VA system, while Democrats were concerned with strengthening the VA's capacity to handle more patients in the future. Both sides ultimately came away with significant progress on those goals.
Lawmakers were spurred to action earlier this year after reports of chronic treatment delays at VA facilities had been linked to the deaths of dozens of veterans. An internal audit of the department's health care facilities determined that officials had used improper scheduling practices, including the falsification of waiting lists, designed to understate the amount of time veterans had been waiting for treatment.
The scandal eventually forced the ouster of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, who'd been on the job since Mr. Obama took office. On Tuesday, the Senate confirmed Bob McDonald, the former CEO of Procter & Gamble, as the next head of the VA.
The president surprised some with his decision to nominate a longtime businessman to head the VA, rather than a former general or politician as other recent VA secretaries have been, but the managerial problems facing the department are steep.
McDonald has pledged to address the department's deficiencies.
"I desperately want this job, because I think I can make a difference," he told lawmakers during his confirmation hearing earlier this month. "There is a lot of work to do to transform the department, and it will not be easy, but it is essential and can be achieved."