House approves bill to expand veterans’ access to private care
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.