After failing in the first try earlier this week, the House unanimously passed a $3.9 billion bill Friday to extend the Veterans Choice Program on private care for six months.
The 419-0 vote on the emergency spending measure came after the Senate worked out a deal with House negotiators to add an amendment to the bill on the leasing of 28 new VA facilities in 17 states to overcome the objections of the veterans service organizations (VSOs).
The bill that passed and was sent to the Senate for quick approval included $2.1 billion for Choice, which allows veterans to seek private or community health care, and $1.8 billion for the 28 new medical leases and new health care specialist hires.
Funding for Choice was due to run out in mid-August, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. On Monday, the House tried and failed to pass a Choice extension that would have been paid for by trimming pensions for Medicaid-eligible veterans and a variety of other fees.
The new bill includes the same offsets for funding but added the 28 leases to ease the concerns of the VSOs, which feared that the extension and expansion of Choice would come at the expense of core VA functions.
In a joint statement after compromise on Choice was reached with the House, Sens. Johnny Isakson, R-Georgia, and Jon Tester, D-Montana, respectively the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said the bill would give Congress time to work on reforming the program.
"The Veterans Choice Program was created to ensure that veterans could receive timely appointments in their own communities," they said.
"While this is only a short-term fix to the problem, we pledge to continue working together to address the various barriers to timely care for our nation's veterans," the two senators said.
In the brief floor debate on the new bill, Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tennessee, chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said, "I'll be first to admit Choice program been plagued with problems" on reimbursements and access, but failure to pass an extension would have resulted in "devastating consequences" for veterans who have come to rely on private care.
In a joint statement, Roe and Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minnesota, the ranking member on HVAC, said, "We are most proud of the legislation that will allow the Choice Program to continue serving veterans for six months while we continue the hard work of creating a stronger, more integrated VA health care system for the years ahead."
Roe said earlier, "There's still much work ahead, and this is only [a] six-month patch in the Choice program. The ranking member and I have a framework agreement for moving forward, and that will require cooperation and buy-in from all my colleagues in the House and Senate."
In a statement, the eight VSOs that opposed the initial House bill applauded the compromise agreement that passed unanimously.
"Most importantly, we supported this legislation because it will authorize 28 urgently needed medical facility leases to expand VA's internal capacity to deliver care, as well as provide VA with new tools and authorities to recruit, hire and retain high-quality medical professionals," the VSOs said.
The VSOs, representing a total of 5.5 million members, were the Veterans of Foreign Wars, AMVETS, Disabled American Veterans, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, Military Officers Association of America, Military Order of the Purple Heart, Vietnam Veterans of America and Wounded Warrior Project.
In passing the bill, "We've shown that we can tackle the big issues in a bipartisan way," said Rep. Julia Brownley, D-California, a member of HVAC. The new leases will "bring more care closer to home for veterans from coast to coast" through outpatient clinics, she said.
Brownley gave a list 25 of the 28 the new lease facilities as follows:
• Oxnard, Calif. -- Outpatient Clinic
• Ann Arbor, Mich. -- Outpatient Clinic
• Birmingham, Ala. -- Outpatient Mental Health Clinic
• Boston, Mass. -- Research
• Charleston, S.C. -- Research
• Corpus Christi, Texas -- Replacement Outpatient Clinic
• Daytona Beach, Fla. -- Outpatient Clinic
• Denver, Colo. -- Chief Business Office Purchased Care
• Fredericksburg, Va. -- Outpatient Clinic
• Gainesville, Fla. -- Outpatient Clinic
• Hampton Roads, Va. -- Outpatient Clinic
• Indianapolis, Ind. -- Outpatient Clinic
• Jacksonville, Fla. -- Replacement Outpatient Clinic
• Missoula, Mont. -- Outpatient Clinic
• Northern Colorado, Colo. -- Outpatient Clinic
• Ocala, Fla. -- Outpatient Clinic
• Pike County, Ga. -- Outpatient Clinic
• Pittsburgh, Pa. -- Outpatient Clinic
• Portland, Maine -- Outpatient Clinic
• Raleigh, N.C. -- Outpatient Clinic
• Rochester, N.Y. -- Replacement Outpatient Clinic
• San Diego -- Research
• Santa Rosa, Calif. -- Outpatient Clinic
• Tampa, Fla. -- Replacement Mental Health Clinic
• Lakeland, Fla. -- Replacement Outpatient
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.