Bill shores up highway aid, veterans' health care

AP News
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Posted: Jul 29, 2015 5:56 PM

WASHINGTON (AP) — The House voted Wednesday to shore up federal aid for highway and transit programs and fill a budget hole in veterans' health care:

HIGHWAY-TRANSIT EXTENSION

The House voted to extend spending authority for the Department of Transportation through Oct. 29, and replenish the federal Highway Trust Fund with $8 billion. That's enough money to keep highway and transit aid flowing to states through mid-December if necessary. The Senate is expected to follow suit later in the week.

Congress is up against a deadline of midnight Friday to act. That's when authority for the Transportation Department will expire and the department will no longer be able to process highway and transit aid payments to states. The extra money is necessary because the balance in the federal Highway Trust Fund is forecast to drop below the $4 billion cushion necessary to prevent disruptions in aid to states.

This will be the 34th short-term extension Congress has passed since 2009.

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VETERANS HEALTHCARE

The highway extension bill includes nearly $3.4 billion to fill in a gap in the Department of Veterans Affairs' budget that officials say could force the government to close hospitals and clinics nationwide. Lawmakers from both parties said the spending is necessary even as they complained about the VA's failure to anticipate the problem.

An amendment sponsored by Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, would allow the VA to use $3.35 billion from the new Veterans Choice program to pay for private health care for veterans from May 1 to Oct. 1.

Under the amendment, the VA could use up to $500 million from the Choice program to cover costs of treating the deadly hepatitis C virus.

The VA has told Congress that it may shutter hospitals unless it receives flexibility to close a $2.5 billion shortfall caused by a sharp increase in demand by veterans for health care, including expensive treatments for hepatitis C. A single pill used for the liver-wasting infection can cost $1,000.

The bill would require the VA to report to the House and Senate veterans committees every 14 days on how the newly authorized funds are being used.