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House approves $17B VA deal, sends it to Senate

A $17 billion bill to fix the VA passed the lower chamber overwhelmingly Wednesday and now heads to the Senate.
By Gabrielle Levy   |   July 30, 2014 at 5:28 PM

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WASHINGTON, July 30 (UPI) -- The House easily passed the $17 billion deal to fix problems at the Department of Veterans Affairs to allow veterans to obtain healthcare outside the VA system, add staff and improve facilities.

Members voted 420-5 under a suspension of the rules, easily surpassing the two-thirds of the House necessary to pass the bill, and sending the measure to the Senate.

All five no votes were Republicans, Reps. Steve Stockman of Texas, Rick Crawford of Arkansas, Walter Jones of North Carolina, Mark Sanford of South Carolina and Jack Kingston of Georgia.

Congress was spurred to action this spring after a whistleblower at a Phoenix, Ariz., Veterans Health Administration facility revealed staff had placed veterans on secret lists to minimize official appointment wait times, leading to rounds of furious hearings and the resignation of VA Sec. Eric Shinseki.

Both the House and Senate quickly passed bills in early June that would give the secretary authority to immediately fire officials, and pay for veterans to seek care outside the VHA if forced to wait more than a month or travel more than 40 miles to the nearest facility. But talks stalled over how to pay for the costs of the legislation, whether those costs should be offset, and details such as whether to include an appeals process for terminated employees.

Late last week, the conference talks nearly collapsed altogether after Senate VA Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., accused his House counterpart, Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., of trying to steamroll the negotiation process in favor of the House bill.

But Monday, Miller and Sanders announced the deal, which includes $10 billion in emergency, or non-offset, spending to pay for veterans to obtain outside care, and $1.5 billion in emergency funding that will allow the VA to enter into leases at 27 facilities around the country to increase capacity. The additional $5 billion in the deal, which will go toward hiring more doctors, nurses and staff, will be offset by cuts elsewhere in the VA's budget.

The Senate is expected to take up the measure before leaving for recess on Thursday.

Follow @gabbilevy and @UPI on Twitter.
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