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House unanimously passes VA bill

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House unanimously passes VA bill

The House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill Tuesday that allows veterans who having been waiting too long or live too far away to go outside the VA system to seek private health care.

The legislation, which was introduced Monday, was sponsored by U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, a Florida Republican and chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs.

All of Southern Arizona's congressional representatives voted for the bill. U.S. Reps. Ron Barber, Raul Grijalva, and Ann Kirkpatrick each voted "aye."

What the legislation does, according to Barber:

  • For two years, the VA is required to offer private care to any enrolled veteran who lives more than 40 miles from a VA medical facility, has waited longer than established wait times, or who has been notified that an appointment is not available within established wait times.
  • The VA must use existing contracts with private medical providers as much as possible, ensure that the authorized non-VA care includes all possible treatments for a diagnosis, and submit a quarterly report to Congress on the care provided under this authority.
  • For two years, the VA is required to reimburse private medical providers at the highest of the following: the rate of reimbursement under VA, the rate of reimbursement under Medicare, or the rate of reimbursement under TRICARE.
  • Requires the VA to enter a contract with an independent entity to conduct an assessment of the care provided in VA medical facilities, report the findings to Congress and submit a report on the assessment. The report must include an action plan for the assessment's recommendations and a timeline for implementation of those recommendations.
  • Eliminates performance awards and bonuses for all VA employees for the next two years.

The bill passed first by a vote of 421-0, and then passed 426-0 in a re-vote taken to include a few members who missed the first roll call, including the bill's sponsor.

Miller acknowledged, "I missed the first vote. I was in my office and missed the first vote," according to the National Review.

Tuesday’s bill closely resembles one sponsored last week by eight Republican senators, including Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake, that would allow veterans to see private doctors if they experience long wait times or live more than 40 miles from a VA hospital. 

The quick passage of this bill is in direct response to a crisis in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs that began when problems were reported at the Phoenix VA Hospital. 

According to early reports, some veterans may have died while waiting for care. An inspector general’s audit found 1,700 veterans who were awaiting primary care appointments in Phoenix but were not on any waiting list.

Public outcry led to the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, who said his presence would be an unneeded distraction to fixing the problem.

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