House panel advances major VA reform bill

House panel advances major VA reform bill
© Greg Nash

A House panel on Tuesday advanced a massive reform package for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) that would overhaul access to private sector care outside the VA health system.

The legislation, called the VA Mission Act, advanced through the House Veterans' Affairs Committee by a 20-2 vote, a key first step to get the bill to President TrumpDonald John TrumpSunday shows preview: Trump sells U.N. reorganizing and Kavanaugh allegations dominate Ex-Trump staffer out at CNN amid “false and defamatory accusations” Democrats opposed to Pelosi lack challenger to topple her MORE for a signature before the end of the month.

The bill would expand the number of veterans who are eligible to see private sector health specialists, as well as entitle veterans enrolled in the VA system to see a private doctor twice a year without a copay.

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It also contains $5.2 billion to keep the Veterans Choice Program funded until the new system can be implemented. Without action, the program will run out of money by May 31.

The Choice program was meant as a temporary fix following the 2014 VA wait-time scandal. It allows some veterans to see private doctors, but only in cases where they have to wait more than 30 days for an appointment or drive more than 40 miles to a facility.

President Trump has urged swift movement on the legislation to overhaul access to private sector care, and last week urged lawmakers to pass it by Memorial Day.

Democrats on the House Veterans' Affairs Committee were mostly receptive to the changes in the updated version of the VA bill, but ranking member Tim WalzTimothy (Tim) James WalzElection Countdown: Trump confident about midterms in Hill.TV interview | Kavanaugh controversy tests candidates | Sanders, Warren ponder if both can run | Super PACs spending big | Two states open general election voting Friday | Latest Senate polls White House re-lowers flag to half staff to honor McCain after backlash Election Countdown: GOP worries House majority endangered by top of ticket | Dems make history in Tuesday's primaries | Parties fight for Puerto Rican vote in Florida | GOP lawmakers plan 'Freedom Tour' MORE (D-Minn.) and Rep. Mark TakanoMark Allan TakanoHouse panel advances major VA reform bill Spending bill prevents employers from pocketing tips under tip-pooling rule Veterans Health Administration needs stronger recruitment methods MORE (D-Calif.) ultimately voted against the legislation.

Walz said the White House forced committee leaders to reject Democratic proposals, such as a yearly review of the ability to send veterans to private care. Walz also wanted to exempt the funding for the Choice program from potential sequestration cuts.

The legislation “lacks a sustainable source of funding to ensure that care is provided and protected in the long-term,” Walz said in a statement.

A spokesman for House Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiDemocrats opposed to Pelosi lack challenger to topple her Sinema, Fitzpatrick call for long-term extension of Violence Against Women Act Internal RNC poll shows Pelosi is more popular than Trump: report MORE (D-Calif.) didn’t respond to a request for comment on the new version of the legislation.

The bill moves the current Choice funding account from mandatory spending to discretionary spending, but doesn’t protect it from automatic sequestration cuts when the legislation takes effect.

Trump has been pressuring Congress to support the bill despite fallout surrounding his decision to fire David ShulkinDavid Jonathon ShulkinVeterans group sues to block advisers known as ‘Mar-a-Lago Crowd’ from influencing VA Mar-a-Lago insiders provided input on VA policy, personnel decisions: report Ahead of speech, Kansas City newspaper urges Trump to listen to veterans MORE, who led the VA for about a year before he exited the administration in March.

Ronny Jackson, the White House physician whom Trump tapped as Shulkin’s replacement, was forced to withdraw his name from consideration to lead the VA.

Jackson battled allegations that he improperly distributed prescription drugs, was drunk on duty and created a hostile work environment before dropping out of consideration last month.

The VA reform bill was originally negotiated as part of the massive government spending bill Congress passed in March. But it was ultimately stripped out before passage after last-minute objections by House Democrats, who were concerned that the community care provisions pushed the VA too far toward privatization.

Tensions over privatization played a key role in the dismissal of Shulkin, who alleged that officials in the administration were pushing hard for privatization and that he was fired when he got in their way.