The Senate voted Wednesday to give veterans more freedom to see doctors outside of the VA's health care system, fulfilling a promise of President Donald Trump, who has said that veterans should be able to access private care whenever they're dissatisfied with the VA's options.
The measure passed the Senate by a 92-5 vote and now heads to the President's desk.
The bill would allow veterans to seek care from a private physician, with the approval of a VA health care provider, when they feel that VA's health care systems can't provide the care they need. Veterans could also seek care in the private sector when they experienced long wait times, or the treatment was not at the level they expected.
The sweeping legislation also provides $5.2 billion for the VA's Choice program, which would allow it to operate for another year. Acting VA Secretary Robert Wilkie had warned lawmakers last month that the program could run out of money as early as Memorial Day, causing veterans to see disruptions in their care.
Trump has said he is ready to sign the bill "immediately" to ensure that veterans receive "the care they deserve."
The bill's long awaited passage comes one week after Trump named Wilkie to lead VA permanently. The Department of Veterans Affairs has been without a permanent leader since late March, when the President ousted David Shulkin. The President nominated Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson, a White House physician, to lead the VA, but Jackson withdrew his nomination amid allegations of improper behavior that were leveled against him.
Critics of the legislation have argued that the changes are a major step toward privatizing VA's health care system, and that shifting billions of dollars outside VA and into the private sector could effectively bleed the agency dry. More than a dozen federal unions wrote a letter to lawmakers saying that the bill "gives the VA secretary the authority to privatize and dismantle broad swaths of the VA health care system" and "assures that once care and services leave the VA they will not return."
The legislation had the support of nearly 40 major veterans groups, who in a letter before the bill passed the House described it as a "major step" toward the goal of ensuring timely and seamless healthcare for the nation's veterans.
It also had the support of Concerned Veterans for America, a conservative group that has grown influential in the Trump administration that is backed by the billionaire Koch brothers.
Aside from the changes to veterans health care, the bill also includes a provision that would create a presidentially appointed commission to make recommendations on "the modernization or realignment of Veterans Health Administration facilities." The legislation would also expand a VA caregivers program to allow families of veterans of all eras, not just those from the post-9/11 era, to receive monthly stipends through the department.
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