The U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a bill Wednesday designed to ease the backlog of veterans waiting for medical care from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The $17 billion plan would pay for new VA clinics, the hiring of more doctors and nurses at existing clinics, and office visits to private health care providers for veterans who live more than 40 miles from a clinic or face waits of more the 30 days to get into one.
The bill, which includes $5 billion to be diverted within the department’s budget and $12 billion in new funding, also would make it easier to fire 80,000 VA employees for poor performance or misconduct.
The 420-5 House vote moved the bill to the Senate, which is expected to vote before Congress recesses on Thursday.
U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud of Maine, the ranking Democrat on the House Veterans Affairs Committee, which oversees the VA, said in a speech on the House floor before the vote that the bill is only a first step toward fully reforming the department.
Comprehensive reform, including “radically restructuring” the VA, is needed in all areas, he said, including organization, technology, recording-keeping and workforce capabilities.
“Far too often, the good intentions underlying the laws we pass are stymied by an organizational structure that has its origins in the 1970s and 1980s,” Michaud said.
Michaud served on the conference committee that reconciled reform bills passed by the House and Senate, and highlighted his work on Project ARCH (Access Received Closer to Home), which allows veterans in rural areas to get health care in private clinics.
Maine is one of five test sites for the program, which received a two-year extension in the bill.
“It is critical for the thousands of veterans who live in districts like mine,” Michaud said.
Problems in the Department of Veterans Affairs came to light this spring, when a whistleblower claimed that officials in Phoenix were concealing long wait times for care by keeping secret lists. The Office of the Inspector General revealed that 1,700 veterans were not on an official waiting list in Phoenix, and at least 18 died while awaiting care.
Michaud, the Democratic candidate for Maine governor, quickly came under fire from his gubernatorial opponents, Republican Paul LePage and independent Eliot Cutler.
LePage and Cutler blamed Michaud for failing to provide adequate oversight of the VA after an investigator noted that problems with wait times for health care had been noted in 18 previous oversight reports.
When news of the compromise brokered by independent Sen. Bernie Sander of Vermont and Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Florida, broke on Monday, Cutler expressed hope that the nation’s veterans would be taken care of, while LePage’s campaign continued to criticize Michaud.
Brent Littlefield, LePage’s political adviser, stayed on the attack Wednesday, but he was forced to correct a press release that sought to cast doubt on Michaud’s claim that he was “very active” in drafting the compromise reform bill voted on Wednesday.
Littlefield’s release included links to 11 national stories about the compromise, saying none of them mentioned Michaud. Several of the stories were from the same source, while another clearly noted Michaud’s involvement.