The Senate on Wednesday overwhelmingly passed bipartisan legislation aimed at addressing the Department of Veterans Affairs’ scheduling crisis. The vote sends the measure to the House, where lawmakers have already approved some of the same provisions in separate standalone bills.
The bill, sponsored by Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), would allow the VA to contract more with private medical centers to meet demand for care, in addition to granting the department authority to shift $500 million from its budget toward hiring additional medical staff and giving the VA secretary greater power to fire or demote senior executives for poor performance.
The measure, which passed by a vote of 93 to 2, would also expand certain benefits for former and current troops, providing in-state tuition rates for all veterans at public colleges and universities and increasing access to care for military sexual-assault survivors.
The vote came one day after the House passed a standalone bill that would allow the VA to contract more with private health providers. The House has also approved its own VA firing measure, but it differs slightly from the Senate version, which includes language ensuring that officials can appeal the personnel actions and receive a decision within one month.
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office on Wednesday released a report on the estimated costs for the Senate bill, saying the contracting provision could increase direct spending by about $35 billion over the next 10 years.
The CBO also said that enrollment numbers could rise under the bill because of improved access to care, costing the federal government an additional $50 billion per year to meet the growing demand.
Sanders, who heads the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said in an interview on Wednesday that the costs of the bill are justified.
“One of the costs of war is taking care of the men and women who fought in those wars,” he said. “We have a moral obligation to do everything we can to make them whole, to provide the benefits and medical care to which they’re entitled. If anyone disagrees with taking care of veterans, they shouldn’t send them off to war in the first place.”
McCain said on the Senate floor Wednesday that more measures may be necessary to address the VA’s scheduling issues. “There will be more efforts to fix this gaping wound in America’s conscience,” he said.
Monday’s vote moves the Senate bill to the House, where House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) and Ranking Member Mike Michaud (D-Maine) will take first crack at developing a final piece of legislation.
“I am absolutely confident that, working with Chairman Miller and Ranking Member Michaud, we can bridge the differences and send the president a bill he can sign in the very near future,” Sanders said on the Senate floor.
Miller indicated during an interview on Tuesday that he would not try to derail the Senate measure. He said he does not agree with all parts of the bill, but he added: “It would be foolish for us to have 90 percent on the table and vote against it. If it takes a compromise with Senator Sanders, then that’s what it takes.”
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