WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate on Monday approved legislation that would extend a troubled program aimed at widening veterans' access to private-sector health care, the first step in an overhaul of programs at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The bill passed by voice vote. It would allow the VA to continue operating its Choice program until its money runs out, expected to occur early next year. Without legislation, the program will expire on Aug. 7 with nearly $1 billion left over in its account. The VA says that money can provide stopgap care until a broader revamp is designed.
The Choice program was put in place after a 2014 wait-time scandal at the Phoenix VA medical center in which some veterans died. Intended to provide veterans more timely care, the Choice program allows veterans to go outside the VA network in cases where they had to wait more than 30 days for an appointment or drive more than 40 miles to a facility. Yet it often encountered long wait times of its own due to bureaucratic glitches and other problems.
The Senate bill calls for fixes in the program to address some of those concerns, by helping speed up VA payments and promote greater sharing of medical records.
It now goes to the House, which was expected to easily pass the measure Wednesday.
"This bipartisan legislation cuts some of the red tape that slows down veterans' access to care in their communities," said Montana Sen. Jon Tester, the top Democrat on the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee. "I'm proud that Republicans and Democrats in Congress worked together to provide these solutions for veterans."
Tester sponsored the bill along with Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Johnny Isakson of Georgia.
Major veterans' organizations and Democrats were not opposed to continuing the Choice program as a stopgap. But they are closely watching the VA's subsequent overhaul, after President Donald Trump's transition team signaled last year that it would consider a "public-private" option in which veterans could get all their medical care in the private sector, with the government paying the bill. Veterans groups generally oppose that as a threat to the viability of VA medical centers.
While VA Secretary David Shulkin has promised not to privatize the department, he says he wants to build stronger partnerships with the private sector to improve VA care. A newly formed White House Office of American Innovation led by Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is also now examining ways to improve the VA.
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