The House Wednesday passed by a vote of 372-70 major veterans legislation to extend and reform the Veterans Choice Program to allow more private care options.
The "VA Mission Act," would also lift the restrictions on family caregiver benefits, which are now limited to post-9/11 veterans, and extend them to the caregivers of veterans of all eras.
The bill will now go to the Senate, where Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Georgia, chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, and Sen. Jon Tester, the ranking member of the Committee, have already expressed their support.
President Donald Trump has said he will sign the bill quickly when it reaches his desk.
In a statement last week, the White House said the bill would "transform the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) into a modern, high-performing, and integrated healthcare system that will ensure our veterans receive the best healthcare possible from the VA, whether delivered in the VA's own facilities or in the community."
Veterans Service Organizations (VSOs), which previously had expressed concerns that a rapid expansion of community care options could lead to the "privatization" of VA health care, had lined up to back the new bill.
Denise Rohan, national commander of the two-million member American Legion, said in a statement that "I applaud the passage of the VA Mission Act." She said the bill "will streamline and fund the Department of Veterans Affairs' many community care programs" and also "expand caregiver benefits to pre-9/11 veterans and their families."
Keith Harman, national commander of the 1.7 million member Veterans of Foreign Wars, said the bill "will help improve services throughout the VA health system while utilizing private sector resources when needed, striking the right balance to make sure we provide veterans with the best care possible."
A similar bill offered last year by Isakson was left out of the omnibus $1.3 trillion spending package signed by Trump in February for all government agencies, forcing the House and Senate to begin anew on reforming choice.
Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tennessee, the chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee who was instrumental in gaining bipartisan support for the new legislation, said that "Over the last several months, we've taken great, bipartisan steps to reform the department, and this legislation is yet another strong step in the right direction."
Roe said the provisions in the bill would keep "our promise to give veterans more choice in their health care while building on our strong investment in VA's internal capacity."
The bill would authorize $5.2 billion to extend the current Veterans Choice Program, whose funding was set to expire on May 31, for one year while the VA enacts reforms to expand private care options.
Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minnesota, the ranking member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, voted against the bill.
"There is little debate that the VA Mission Act is better than the current Veterans Choice Program," Walz said, but he questioned whether there would be sufficient funding in the long run to sustain it.
"Voting against this bill is not something I take lightly," he said. "While I have serious concerns with regard to long term sustainability and implementation, the bill does take steps to consolidate VA's various care in the community programs while providing much needed stop gap funding for the ailing Veterans Choice Program."
Former VA Secretary David Shulkin last year said that about one-third of VA medical appointments were being handled in the private sector, but the Trump administration had argued for more private care options for veterans who face long waits for appointments or have to travel long distances to VA facilities.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.