With overwhelming support, the U.S. Senate passed a bill to streamline the VA health care system, which could reduce veterans' wait times and allow more of them to seek out their own physicians.
The VA Mission Act was easily approved by the Senate with a vote of 92-5 on Wednesday. The bill, which previously passed the House by a vote of 347-70, will next go to President Donald Trump to become law just ahead of Memorial Day.
Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., lauded the bipartisan effort to get the legislation approved. He worked with Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., the committee's ranking member, to push the bill through the Senate.
“On Monday of next week, we celebrate Memorial Day, where we honor those who have sacrificed their lives so we could all be here today,” Isakson said. “There is nothing less we need to ask of ourselves than to see it they have the health care benefits we've promised veterans for so long.”
The bill had garnered support of more than 30 veterans service organizations, including the Military Officers Association of America.
The VA Mission Act will transform the health system by consolidating seven existing community care programs into one, eliminating the Choice Act, and integrating providers into a broader network that will expand veterans' access to care.
It will also extend the VA caregiver program to veterans of all eras who were seriously disabled, rather than limiting to those who fought in the post-9/11 conflicts.
The legislation establishes a process to review and develop a plan to optimize and modernize VA medical care facilities where there is a demand. It also includes tools to recruit and retain physicians.
The bill prevents a gap in care for veterans who use the VA Choice program, which runs out of funding on May 31. The $51 billion in the bill includes about $5 billion for Choice, which allows veterans to seek care in the private sector if they're facing long wait times or live more than 40 miles from a VA facility. That $5 billion will keep Choice funded for about a year until it was replaced.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said seeing the bill endorsed by 38 veteran organizations is testament to the strength of the VA Mission Act.
“It's not merely our duty, but our privilege to improve and enhance the care available to those who have given so much,” he said.
Representatives from MOAA, Veterans of Foreign Wars, and American Legion backed the bill.
René Campos, MOAA's senior director of Government Relations for veterans-wounded warrior care, lauded lawmakers, the administration, and VA leadership for moving the legislation through Congress.
“Our country and Congress have remained committed to caring for those who serve their country through the decades,” Campos said. “Not only is it the right thing to do, but MOAA believes the institution must remain strong and committed because at the end of the day, Americans will judge the value of service to the country by how well the government supports and cares for those willing to put their lives on the line for their country.”