By Hope Yen
WASHINGTON — The Senate approved a pair of bills Tuesday taking aim at urgent problems at the Department of Veterans Affairs, clearing a $3.9 billion emergency spending package to fix a looming budget crisis and adopting new measures to pare down a rapidly growing backlog of veterans' disability claims.
Both bills passed by unanimous vote.
The spending package provides $2.1 billion to continue funding the Veterans Choice Program, which allows veterans to receive private medical care at government expense. VA Secretary David Shulkin had warned that without congressional action the program would run out of money by mid-August, disrupting medical care for thousands of veterans.
Another $1.8 billion would go to core VA health programs, including 28 leases for new VA medical facilities.
The other piece of legislation approved by the Senate would cut the time it takes for the VA to handle appeals from veterans unhappy with their disability payouts, part of a bid to reduce a rapidly growing claims backlog. That bill was a priority for Shulkin, who described the appeals process as "broken." It comes weeks after President Donald Trump signed into law a bipartisan accountability bill to make it easier to fire employees at VA, pledging to continue with other changes to transform VA "until the job is done."
The spending package now goes to Trump for his signature, while the disability appeals bill goes back to the House.
"It is critical that the Veterans Choice Program has the funding to continue offering timely appointments for veterans in their own communities," said Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia, chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, who helped broker the emergency deal. "This bicameral, bipartisan agreement is truly a testament to what can be accomplished when Congress works together."
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., also hailed the spending package for VA care.
"We simply cannot afford to let this program expire and send our veterans back to the status quo of never-ending wait-times for appointments and substandard care. The Senate's passage of this bill to preserve the Veterans Choice Program is an important step forward," he said.
The Choice Program was put in place after a 2014 wait-time scandal that was discovered at the Phoenix VA hospital and spread throughout the country. Veterans waited weeks or months for appointments amid phony records that covered up the lengthy waits.
A priority for Trump, the program allows veterans to receive care from outside doctors if they must wait at least 30 days for an appointment or drive more than 40 miles to a VA facility.
The spending package would extend the program for six months and devote $1.8 billion to authorize leases and establish programs to make it easier to hire health specialists, giving Congress more time to debate the future direction of the VA. Costs would be paid for by trimming pensions for some Medicaid-eligible veterans and collecting fees for housing loans.
The House passed the spending bill last Friday, after major veterans' groups had opposed an earlier House version because it didn't provide for additional investments in VA infrastructure. Democrats blocked that earlier version after veterans decried it as unacceptable privatization. That led to renewed negotiations led by Isakson and Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, the top Democrat on the Senate panel.
On disability claims, the measure passed Tuesday by the Senate would overhaul the appeals process, allowing veterans to file "express" appeals if they waive their right to a hearing or the ability to submit new evidence. The VA could test the new program for up to 18 months until Shulkin could certify it was ready for a full rollout with enough money to manage appeals effectively. Lawmakers hope the legislation ultimately could reduce average wait times to less than a year.
Currently, veterans could wait five years or more to resolve their appeals over disability claims.
The House passed a similar bill in April and was expected to approve the Senate's revisions when it returned from recess in September.
"Veterans have been waiting far too long for an answer from the VA. This bill will speed up the outdated appeals process so veterans can receive the disability benefits that they have earned," Tester said.
Still, the legislation offers no immediate fix for the bulk of the 470,000 appeals claims in VA's backlog; the changes would apply almost entirely to newly filed appeals. Shulkin has said Trump's proposed VA budget for the next fiscal year beginning Oct. 1 doesn't account for $800 million in "hiring surges" that would be needed if VA hoped to clear the current backlog within 10 years.
The department provides $63.7 billion in disability compensation payments each year to about 4.1 million veterans with disabling conditions incurred during their military service.
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