House ap­proves bill to ex­pand vet­er­ans’ ac­cess to pri­vate care

Richmond Times-Dispatch - - WEATHER DESK -

WASH­ING­TON — The House voted Wed­nes­day to give vet­er­ans more free­dom to see doc­tors out­side the Vet­er­ans Af­fairs health sys­tem, a ma­jor shift aimed at re­duc­ing wait times and im­prov­ing med­i­cal care de­spite the con­cerns of some Democrats who cast it as a risky step to­ward dis­man­tling the strug­gling agency.

The plan seeks to ful­fill Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s prom­ise to ex­pand pri­vate care to vet­er­ans when­ever they feel un­happy with VA health care.

The long-awaited bill would change how vet­er­ans re­ceive their med­i­cal treat­ment by al­low­ing them to go to a pri­vate physi­cian when they felt gov­ern­ment-run VA med­i­cal cen­ters couldn’t pro­vide the care they needed, with the ap­proval of a VA health provider. Vet­er­ans could ac­cess pri­vate care when they en­dured lengthy wait times, or the treat­ment was not what they had ex­pected.

The VA would de­cide in many cases when a vet­eran sees an out­side doc­tor, based on con­di­tions it sets that de­ter­mine what is in­ad­e­quate care.

Law­mak­ers passed the bill by a 347-70 vote, with the pro­gram to be im­ple­mented next year as the VA works to add pri­vate doc­tors to its net­work of out­side re­fer­rals.

The wide-rang­ing plan would avert a cat­a­strophic shut­down of the VA’s trou­bled Choice pri­vate sec­tor pro­gram, which would re­ceive $5 bil­lion to con­tinue op­er­at­ing for an­other year be­fore it is made a longert­erm fix­ture at the VA. The pro­gram will run out of money as early as May 31, caus­ing dis­rup­tions in care.

The $51 bil­lion bill has the sup­port of nearly 40 or­ga­ni­za­tions, in­clud­ing the Amer­i­can Le­gion and Vet­er­ans of For­eign Wars. The pro­gram could be ex­panded based on vet­er­ans’ de­mand for pri­vate ser­vices and when VA care is deemed in­ad­e­quate. The VA would be able to de­ter­mine how quickly the pro­gram grows.

The leg­is­la­tion now goes to the Se­nate, where law­mak­ers are seek­ing a vote be­fore their Memo­rial Day break. Trump has said he is ready to sign the bill.

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