Senate passes VA overhaul in 91-3 vote

The Senate on Thursday easily adopted a $17 billion bill meant to revamp the troubled Veterans Affairs (VA) Department.

Senators voted 91-3 in favor of a conference agreement that provides $10 billion in funding to pay for veterans to get healthcare at private facilities and another $5 billion to allow the VA to hire more doctors, nurses and other medical staff.

The House backed the proposal in a 420-5 vote on Wednesday. The bill now goes to President Obama for his signature.

ADVERTISEMENT
"Right now veterans in many parts of this country are on very long waiting lists before they get VA healthcare," Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said ahead of the vote. "Obviously this is an expensive proposition but it is one we have to address."

Sanders negotiated the legislative deal with his House counterpart Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.).

"We are now just one signature away from making government more accountable and providing veterans with real choice in their health care decisions," Miller said after the Senate vote. "I am confident the president will do the right thing and sign this bill into law.”

Sens. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) voted against the deal.

"It’s embarrassing that Congress not only refuses to face today’s decisions with the courage our men and women in uniform have demonstrated for decades, but rushed through a piece of legislation without thoroughly reviewing its full fiscal impact on future generations and without knowing if it will address the systemic problems that exist at the VA," Corker said.

Coburn said he was voted against the popular measure because he did not believe it would actually address the problems at the VA that led to months-long waits for veterans to get healthcare. He also criticized the bill for adding $12 billion to the deficit. Spending cuts inside the department, including placing a cap on employee performance bonuses, would cover the other $5 billion in costs.

"I thought in conference we would actually fix it," Coburn said. "We won’t fix the real problem and we’re going to say we did and we’re going to spend our grandkids money saying we did."

Before final passage, the Senate voted 86-8 to waive a budget point of order against the bill brought up by Coburn. 

The measure lets veterans seek medical treatment at non-VA providers who participate in Medicare if they live more than 40 miles away from a VA facility, or if doctors cannot see them within 30 days.

The compromise package also includes $1.5 billion in funding for the VA to lease space at 27 facilities across the country in order to help the agency meet growing patient demand.

The vote’s outcome was never really in doubt, as Senate Republicans earlier this week indicated they would not oppose the bill even though it adds to the deficit.

"The cost of war is a lot greater than most Americans fully understand," Sanders said. "Taking care of veterans is in fact a cost of war."

In a bid to increase accountability at the department, the new bill would also provide the VA secretary new power to fire underperforming executives.

Lawmakers argued the new authority was essential after audits by the White House and the VA earlier this year found department officials covered up long patient wait times at more than 100 facilities. The delays may have contributed to the deaths of veterans in some cases.

The scandal forced former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign on May 30.

On Tuesday, the Senate voted 97-0 to confirm former Procter & Gamble executive Robert McDonald to succeed Shinseki.

On Thursday, McDonald issued a department-wide message to VA employees, saying, "I recognize that the last few months have been difficult — and the days ahead will not be easy."

He said while he wanted to hear from staffers on how to improve the agency, "I will not tolerate those who stifle initiative, seek to punish people who raise legitimate concerns or report problems, or lack integrity in word or deed. Trust is essential in everything we do."

More in Senate

Sanders blocks Obama Treasury nominee

Read more »