Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) opposed the measure because of its costs. They stood alone in voting against the bill, which passed the Senate 93-3 on Wednesday.
The bill came in response to recent watchdog reports that said the Department of Veterans Affairs falsified appointment records to cover up treatment delays. It would give the VA greater authority to fire or demote senior executives and provide funding for the agency to contract with private medical centers to help meet demand.
The private-provider provision could increase spending by about $35 billion over the next 10 years, according to a report the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office released less than an hour before the Senate vote on Wednesday.
The CBO report also said that more veterans may seek health care through the VA because of the expanded use of private providers. It said the additional costs for the federal government could reach an estimated $50 billion each year.
The CBO cautioned that its projection “should be viewed as falling in the middle of a wide range of possible outcomes,” with the potential for the costs to be much greater or smaller than anticipated in its report.
The Senate bill would also grant authority for the VA to shift $500 million within its budget toward hiring more medical staff, as well as allowing the department to lease 26 additional medical facilities.
Beyond addressing scheduling issues, the bill would also expand access to healthcare for military sexual-assault survivors, require public colleges and universities to offer in-state tuition rates for all veterans regardless of where they live and allow tuition assistance for surviving spouses of troops who died in the line of duty.
Johnson accused Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) of rushing the measure to the floor on Wednesday without time for lawmakers to contemplate its costs. In a statement, he said veterans “are the finest among us and deserve high-quality health care,” but he added that the bill would “spend more money to expand a broken system.”
Similarly, Corker said in a statement on Wednesday that “veterans deserve solutions to the chronic, systemic problems that exist at the VA,” but he added that the Senate legislation was “rushed through in an effort to hide the massive price tag from the American people.”
Corker also said he is open to supporting the final VA bill if the House finds a way to “improve the bill and pay for it.”
Sessions on Wednesday expressed reservations about the unknown costs of the bill and waiving the spending cap that Congress and President Obama approved in the last budget.
“We need to resist the temptation to create more entitlements and more entitlements, which is one of the reasons we are heading recklessly toward fiscal crisis,” Sessions said on the Senate floor before the vote. He said Congress should instead focus on “reforms and solutions that improve the quality of service and the effectiveness that is delivered.”
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