House passes VA overhaul bill ... twice

 

The House on Tuesday twice passed legislation to allow veterans to seek medical care outside the Department of Veterans Affairs if wait times are too long.

Passed the second time 426-0, the bill would require the VA to pay for enrolled veterans' medical care from private doctors if they cannot get appointments within the department's wait time goals. 

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The VA's target for scheduling medical appointments is 14 days.

House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) said the measure would help alleviate the backlog of veterans waiting for appointments. An audit ordered by the White House found that more than 57,000 veterans waited at least 90 days to see a doctor, while another 63,000 over the last decade never received an initial appointment.

"This is a national disgrace," Miller said.

Across the Capitol, legislation struck by Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) would similarly give the VA secretary authority to fire executive as well as allow some veterans to seek healthcare outside the VA. A vote on the measure has not yet been scheduled.

Rep. Michael Michaud (D-Maine), the top Democrat on the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, said that the care itself at VA facilities was not the problem once veterans managed to get appointments. 

"We often hear that the care veterans receive at the VA facilities is second to none. That is, if you can get in," Michaud said. "Tens of thousands of veterans are not getting in."

Additionally, the legislation would allow veterans who live more than 40 miles from the nearest VA medical facility to receive care from private doctors.

But Rep. Julia Brownley (D-Calif.) said that the legislation should consider the amount of time it takes for veterans to reach the nearest facility, rather than just the mileage. 

"This bill will not fix everything, but it will absolutely help," Brownley said. "However, those of us who represent urban areas like Southern California we all know that 40 miles can take the better part of a day to traverse back and forth."

Miller said that discussions could continue over the distance provision.

"I understand Ms. Brownley's concern and I have heard that from members on our side of the aisle as well," Miller said.

Another provision in the measure would block performance bonuses for all VA employees through fiscal 2016. 

The bill originally passed 421-0, but the House re-did the vote because some members missed the initial tally, including Miller.

"I missed the first vote. I was in my office and missed the first vote," Miller said.

A GOP aide also said that a few other members were in meetings during the first vote and wanted to be on the record in support of the bill.

Miller said he expected talks with the Senate on a compromise measure to resume this week.

"I expect Sen. Sanders and I will have a discussion later this week," Miller said. "I expect the House will conference the two bills."

Last month, the House passed 390-33 a measure to give the VA secretary authority to fire senior executives based on poor performance. And on Monday, the House gave voice vote approval to a bill that requires the VA to follow up on problems highlighted by its inspector general.

--This report was updated at 4:04 p.m.

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