WASHINGTON, July 31 – The Senate tonight approved and sent to President Barack Obama a bill to improve access to health care for veterans and reform the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Crafted by the Senate and House Veterans’ Affairs Committee chairmen – Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) – the $16.3 billion bill passed the Senate by a vote of 91-3. The House of Representatives voted 420-5 on Wednesday to approve the same measure.
“This bill keeps our commitment to the men and women who put their lives on the line to defend our country. It makes certain that we address the immediate crisis of veterans being forced onto long waiting lists for health care. It strengthens the VA so that it will be able to hire the doctors, nurses and medical personnel it needs so we can permanently put an end to the long waiting lists. It addresses the very serious problem of accountability and makes certain that dishonest and incompetent senior officials do not remain employed at the VA,” Sanders said.
The measure provides $5 billion for the VA to recruit more doctors, nurses and other medical providers to care for the surging number of veterans returning from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Veterans on long VA waiting lists and those who live far from VA facilities may see private doctors or go to community health centers, Department of Defense facilities and Indian Health Centers. The bill has $10 billion for that emergency provision for veterans who cannot get an appointment within 30 days or live more than 40 miles from a VA clinic. Another $1.3 billion will pay for leasing 27 new clinics in 18 states and Puerto Rico.
“Planes and tanks and guns are a cost of war,” Sanders said. “So is taking care of the men and women who use those weapons and fight our battles.”
The legislation was passed two days after the Senate confirmed Robert McDonald as the new VA secretary. It will give him more tools to do his job better. One provision would make it easier for the secretary to fire or demote senior executives who falsified records and tried to cover up delays in treating patients.