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Senate approves veterans' care bill

| Wednesday, June 11, 2014, 6:17 p.m.
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In this handout image provided by CBS News, U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) appears on 'Face the Nation' April 14, 2013 in Washington, DC.

Veterans who can't quickly get an appointment at a Department of Veterans Affairs medical facility or who live far from one would get free private health care under a bill the Senate passed overwhelmingly on Wednesday.

The Senate's 93-3 vote occurred a day after the House voted 421-0 on a similar bill. The bills would make it easier to fire senior VA officials who underperform or lie about their performance and would make the federal government pay for private health care for veterans who either can't get a VA appointment within 14 days or who live more than 40 miles from a VA hospital.

Lawmakers wrote the bills in reaction to a growing scandal in which VA officials allegedly hid long wait times to meet service goals set by leaders in Washington and to obtain bonuses. U.S. Reps. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, and Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, said VA Pittsburgh Director Terry Gerigk Wolf was told not to disclose a secret wait list in Pittsburgh, which VA workers have been whittling down in recent weeks.

“There needs to be a change in the leadership culture of the VA,” Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Lehigh Valley, said before voting for the bill. “They tolerated a culture in which the dishonest reporting of waiting periods is all throughout the VA.”

The FBI opened a criminal investigation into the VA, FBI Director James Comey told the House Judiciary Committee. He didn't elaborate on the probe, but said it will be led by the Phoenix field office, which has been the focus of allegations that veterans died while awaiting care.

The Senate bill includes about $35 billion over three years to pay for outside care for veterans, as well as hire hundreds of doctors and nurses, and lease 26 new health facilities in 17 states and Puerto Rico.

“This is only a start,” said Sen. Bob Casey Jr., D-Scranton, who voted for the bill. “We need to continue to address the claims backlog, as well as employment, education and other health care issues that are important to veterans and their families.”

Projected to cost $1.5 billion over 10 years, Toomey said, the bill passed as an emergency measure to get around spending caps set in 2011. The House legislation, which doesn't include money for facilities or doctors, would cost $620 million, the Congressional Budget Office said.

Some Senate Republicans objected to the lack of offsets elsewhere in the federal budget.

“I feel strongly that we've got to do the right thing for our veterans, but I don't think we should create ... an unlimited entitlement program,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., one of three senators who voted against the bill.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who co-authored the bill with Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, noted that spending on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were approved through emergency funding.

“Surely we can spend one-tenth of one percent (of the wars' projected costs) to take care of the men and women who fought those wars,” Sanders said.

The Associated Press contributed. Mike Wereschagin is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7900 or mwereschagin@tribweb.com.

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