WASHINGTON (AP) — The House overwhelmingly approved a landmark bill Wednesday to help veterans avoid long waits for health care that have plagued the Veterans Affairs Department for years.
The $16.3 billion measure also would allow the VA to hire thousands of doctors and nurses and rewrite employment rules to make it easier to fire senior executives judged to be negligent or performing poorly.
The 420-5 vote sends the bill to the Senate, where approval is expected Thursday.
The bill includes $10 billion in emergency spending to help veterans who can't get prompt appointments with VA doctors to obtain outside care; $5 billion to hire doctors, nurses and other medical staff and about $1.3 billion to lease 27 new clinics across the country.
The House vote came as former Procter & Gamble CEO Robert McDonald was sworn in Wednesday to lead the sprawling agency, which provides health care to nearly 9 million enrolled veterans and disability compensation to nearly 4 million veterans.
McDonald, 61, of Cincinnati, replaces Sloan Gibson, who took over as acting secretary in May after Eric Shinseki resigned amid a growing uproar over reports of long veterans' waits for health care and VA workers falsifying records to cover up delays. Gibson will return to his job as deputy secretary.
McDonald has pledged to transform the VA and promised that "systematic failures" must be addressed. He said improving patient access to health care was a top priority, along with restoring transparency, accountability and integrity to the VA.
Congressional budget analysts estimated the bill would cost about $16.3 billion over three years, slightly less than a $17 billion estimate provided by the bill's sponsors.
The bill is expected to add $10 billion to the federal deficit over 10 years after cost-savings such as changes in a veterans' retirement program and reimbursements by insurance companies are included, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said.
Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, said the reform bill was urgently needed in the wake of what he called "the biggest scandal in the history of the Department of Veterans Affairs."
While the bill's cost is steep, it is needed to ensure that veterans receive proper care, Miller said.
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