The Veteran Access to Care Act, co-sponsored by Rep. John Barrow, D-Augusta, passed by a 426-0 vote.
The legislation was introduced Monday after a VA audit revealed that more than 57,000 veterans nationwide have waited more than 90 days for their first medical appointment, with nearly 64,000 more patients in the federal agency having been denied care during the past decade.
At the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center in Augusta, 134 newly enrolled veterans have yet to be scheduled an appointment, despite requesting one in the past 10 years, the audit found.
“This legislation couldn’t come at a more appropriate time,” Barrow said in a statement. “Veterans have waited long enough to get the care they’ve earned, and this week’s report only underscores the need for us to act quickly. This is in no way the only step we need to make, but it addresses the immediate needs of veterans while we continue to overhaul the VA from the ground up.”
Under terms of the legislation – which would expire after two years – veterans who live more than 40 miles from a VA facility or cannot get an appointment within the department’s wait-time goals can receive outside care reimbursed by the federal agency at the highest available rate set by Medicare, Tricare or the VA itself.
Also, the act would ban bonuses for VA employees from fiscal years 2014 through 2016.
Barrow introduced the bill with Rep. Jeff Miller, the chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, who said in a statement that the VA’s latest audit data was evidence that the recent scandal “just keeps getting worse.”
Citing at least 58 veteran deaths linked to delayed VA medical care, including three in Augusta, Miller described the bill as “emergency legislation.”
“It’s unfortunate I have to introduce legislation to address this problem, because the department has had the authority to offer veterans health care services outside of the VA system for years,” Miller said. “However, the continuing revelations of data manipulation and interminably long patient wait times have made it disturbingly clear that VA is unwilling to utilize that authority as often as it should.”
The bill now heads to the Senate, where similar legislation, the Veterans Choice Act, is pending passage.