By Martin Matishak and Cristina Marcos - 07/30/14 04:43 PM EDT
The House on Wednesday overwhelmingly approved a $17 billion overhaul of the troubled Veterans Affairs Department.
The 420-5 vote sends a conference agreement worked out by negotiators in both chambers to the Senate, where it is also expected to be approved. It will then be delivered to the White House for President Obama’s signature.
The three-year bill provides $10 billion in funding to pay for veterans to get healthcare at private facilities. Another $5 billion would go toward allowing the Veterans Affairs Department to hire more doctors, nurses and other medical staff.
"Our bill will allow veterans suffering long waits for care the option to be seen by a local doctor at a private hospital," said Rep. Dan Benishek (R-Mich.).
"It's long overdue that Congress took action to provide the quality of care our veterans have earned," said Rep. Ron Barber (D-Ariz.).
Under the bill, veterans may seek treatment at non-VA providers who participate in Medicare if they live more than 40 miles away from a VA facility, or if agency physicians cannot see them within 30 days.
The bill also includes $1.5 billion in funding for the VA to lease space at 27 facilities around the country. That step is intended to ensure that VA physicians can meet a backload of veterans looking for care. Officials have said the VA is under stress given the large number of veterans who have returned from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The only question in the vote was whether many Republicans would oppose the legislation because of its cost. Negotiators agreed that $12 billion would be considered emergency spending that would add to the deficit. The other $5 billion in costs are offset with spending cuts within the department.
Heritage Action, an influential conservative group, urged members to vote against the bill due to concerns that not all of the measure is offset, though the group did not put the bill on its legislative scorecard.
In the end, only 5 Republicans voted no: Reps. Rick Crawford (Ark.), Walter Jones (N.C.), Jack Kingston (Ga.), Mark Sanford (S.C.) and Steve Stockman (Texas).
House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) and other supporters of the bill argued the emergency spending was appropriate to ensure that veterans receive immediate care.
"It's not a blank check for a broken system," Miller said in comments before the vote.
The bill is meant to respond to the long waits hundreds of thousands of veterans have endured in seeking care from Veterans Affairs facilities.
Internal reports released by the White House and the VA earlier this year found veterans waited weeks or even months to get treatment, and some veterans might have died waiting for help.
The reports also found VA officials covered up the long waiting times on numerous occasions. The VA was operating under rules in which veterans were supposed to receive an appointment within 14 days.
The scandal cost former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki his job. He resigned at the end of May.
The new bill would also give the department’s secretary more power to fire incompetent executives at the VA. Executives deemed unfit for duty would have an unpaid, 21-day window to appeal their dismissal and get a resolution.
The Senate on Tuesday voted 97-0 to confirm former Procter & Gamble executive Robert McDonald to be the next VA chief. He promised to hold employees accountable when he takes over his position.
"This bill ensures that newly confirmed Secretary McDonald will have more tools to hold individuals accountable for their actions," said Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.).
On Tuesday, the findings of an agency-wide audit showed that employees at more than 100 agency sites maintained secret waiting lists that covered-up instances in which veterans endured long waits for care.
Miller cautioned that the compromise bill would not immediately cure all of the controversies surrounding the VA.
"Our work is far from over," Miller said. "The reform that is necessary to reforming the agency will require dedication for years to come."