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June 11. 2014 9:31PM

Senate passes bill aimed at fixing veteran health care delays

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate on Wednesday overwhelmingly passed a bipartisan measure aimed at easing health care delays for veterans by giving them more access to private care and allowing the Department of Veterans Affairs to open more clinics and hire more medical staff.

The 93-3 vote in the Democratic-led Senate followed unanimous passage on Tuesday in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives of a similar bill to address a crisis that has embarrassed the Obama administration and prompted Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki to quit.

The measure, crafted by U.S. Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), contained provisions authored by New Hampshire Sens. Jeanne Shaheen and Kelly Ayotte that would give veterans the option of seeking care from a non-VA provider if they reside in a state without a full-service medical facility, like New Hampshire, and live more than 20 miles from the nearest full-service VA hospital, according to releases from their offices.

“Veterans in New Hampshire deserve the same access to care as every other veteran who has served this country,” Shaheen (D-N.H.) said in a statement. “This bipartisan bill will finally give New Hampshire veterans an opportunity to get the timely and accessible care they deserve.”

“This legislation is good news for New Hampshire veterans, many of whom have been forced to endure hours-long trips to receive medical care that frequently takes them out of state,” Ayotte (R-N.H.) said in a statement. “Since arriving in the Senate, I’ve worked to give our veterans more choice when it comes to where they access care. This bipartisan bill is a major breakthrough for veterans in New Hampshire — the only state in the nation that effectively lacks a full-service VA hospital or contract equivalent — and veterans across our country.”

Provisions passed by both chambers would allow veterans to visit private doctors at VA expense if they are forced to endure long waits for appointments at VA clinics or live more than 40 miles away, and would give the VA secretary more power to fire or demote employees for poor performance.

The Senate measure also matches earlier House-passed legislation that authorizes the VA to sign leases for 26 new clinics in 18 states. The bill would require an emergency supplemental appropriation, which Sanders estimated at under $2 billion, mainly for the opening of the 26 clinics.Lawmakers must now iron out differences between the House and Senate versions before voting on a final package that could be signed into law by President Barack Obama.


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