WASHINGTON (AP) — Congress is set to adopt a landmark bill to help veterans avoid long waits for health care, hire more doctors and nurses to treat them and make it easier to fire senior executives at the Veterans Affairs Department. The House approved the bill Wednesday, with a Senate vote expected by the end of the week.
Congressional budget analysts estimate the bill will cost about $16.3 billion over three years and add $10 billion to the federal deficit over 10 years after cost-savings are included, such as changes in a veterans' retirement program and reimbursements by insurance companies.
The bill would:
— Authorize $10 billion to pay private doctors to treat qualifying veterans who can't get prompt appointments at the VA's nearly 1,000 hospitals and outpatient clinics, or those who live at least 40 miles from one of them. Only veterans who are enrolled in VA care as of Aug. 1 or live at least 40 miles away would be eligible to get outside care.
— Authorize $5 billion to hire thousands of doctors, nurses and medical and mental health professionals at the VA.
— Authorize $1.3 billion to lease 27 new outpatient clinics and other VA medical facilities in 18 states and Puerto Rico.
— Grant the VA secretary authority to fire immediately poor-performing senior executives, while providing employees with streamlined appeal rights. Fired employees would have seven days to appeal, with a decision by an administrative judge due in 21 days.
— Expand a scholarship program for the children of veterans killed in the line of duty to include surviving spouses.
— Allow all veterans and eligible dependents to qualify for in-state tuition at public colleges and universities under the Post 9/11 GI Bill.
— Restrict funding for annual bonuses available to VA employees to $360 million, $40 million less than last year.