WASHINGTON —The Senate on Wednesday overwhelmingly approved legislation paving the way for a major overhaul of the Department of Veterans Affairs and the way veterans access health care in the private sector at government expense.
The measure’s passage by vote of 92-5 represents a significant bipartisan legislative victory for President Trump, who is expected to sign the bill into law within days.
It also delivers on a key campaign promise for the president, who pledged to expand veterans’ opportunities to get private sector care.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., was so confident in its passage, he issued a statement last week declaring the bill would reach the president’s desk before Memorial Day.
“This bicameral, bipartisan bill contains significant reforms to the Department of Veterans Affairs which will increase and strengthen the healthcare and community care options available to America’s veterans,” he said.
The House passed the bill last week by an overwhelming margin of 347-70.
The bill combines seven different programs governing non-VA medical care, including the so-called Choice program, which was created in 2014 after veterans died waiting for appointments at the Phoenix VA.
The legislation tasks VA leadership with creating rules for when veterans can go to private doctors instead of the VA. Criteria to be considered include wait times for VA appointments, quality of VA care and distance from a VA facility.
Known as the VA MISSION Act, the legislation also creates a commission to review VA facilities and make recommendations about which ones are worth repairing, where new ones should be built, and which ones should be closed and care provided instead in the private sector.
Pre-9/11 veterans will receive expanded benefits to help cover the cost of care-givers to take care of injured veterans in their homes under the bill. Such benefits were previously provided to only post-9/11 veterans.
The bill also includes some incentives to help the VA hire more health care providers. It allows the agency to provide scholarships to medical students in exchange for their pledging to work at VA. Currently some 33,000 positions are unfilled at the agency.
More than two dozen veterans’ groups support the legislation, including The American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars and Vietnam Veterans of America.
But it wasn’t a smooth ride to passage. After months of negotiations, Trump fired former VA secretary David Shulkin in part because of his work on the bill. Shulkin supported a prior version that administration officials said didn’t go far enough to offer veterans more private health care choices.
The president last week announced his intent to nominate Acting VA Secretary Robert Wilkie to be the next secretary. Wilkie is currently undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness at the Pentagon.
The move followed the withdrawal of his last nominee, White House doctor and Navy Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson, amid questions about his qualifications and a raft of misconduct allegations.