House approves $16.3-billion Veterans Affairs overhaul bill

The House approved a $17-billion reform bill to help improve Veterans Affairs facilities

By a 420-5 vote, the House on Wednesday approved a $16.3-billion compromise bill to overhaul the Veterans Affairs Department and speed up veterans’ access to healthcare.

The reform measure still needs to be approved by the Senate before it can be sent to the president’s desk. Lawmakers have been racing to agree on a package before their scheduled August break.

Senate leaders have  said they hope to pass their version on Thursday, but a vote wasn't scheduled as of Wednesday afternoon.

The House vote came a day after the Senate confirmed Robert McDonald, the former chief executive of Procter & Gamble, to take over the vast agency.

Support for a VA overhaul followed reports this spring that veterans were waiting months or years for care, and that VA employees were covering up the delays. 

Both chambers overwhelmingly approved separate versions of a VA reform bill in early June, but lawmakers then clashed over the costs. In previous versions of the legislation, the House would have spent $44 billion while the Senate authorized $35 billion.

After talks nearly collapsed last week, House and Senate negotiators signed a joint conference committee agreement late Monday.

The House-approved deal includes $10 billion in emergency funds to allow veterans to go to private doctors if they live more than 40 miles from a VA facility or are told they must wait more than 14 days for an appointment.

An additional $5 billion is allotted to hire doctors, nurses and other medical staff to address problems at overcrowded VA facilities. About $2 billion is to be used to lease 27 clinics in 18 states across the country and to expand existing veterans programs.

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