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Bill Owens endorses new VA reform bill, which expands veterans access to private providers

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A new $17 billion bill to reform the Department of Veterans Affairs received support from Rep. William L. Owens, D-Plattsburgh, as lawmakers look to reform the scandalized program.

The measure includes $10 billion in emergency spending to help veterans who can’t get prompt appointments with VA doctors to obtain outside care; $5 billion to hire doctors, nurses and other medical staff, and about $1.5 billion to lease 27 new clinics across the country.

“This is a reasonable first step,” Mr. Owens said. “One of the things that happened was we, in Congress, didn’t provide enough money for the VA to do the job, and that was putting tremendous pressure on them to get the job done.”

The additional funding, he said, would take some of that pressure off the agency as it takes on an influx of veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“There are pieces here that if properly implemented will go a long way to creating a better VA, and by that I mean one that does the job for veterans,” Mr. Owens said.

Most important for the north country, the measure would require the VA 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.

“We have facilities in our communities, but they don’t offer the full range of services offered in Syracuse and Albany,” Mr. Owens said. “That makes the availability of local institutions to be a big step forward.”

The vote by the 28-member conference committee sends the bill to the full House and Senate, where approval is expected later this week. Lawmakers hope to send the VA reform bill to the president later this week.

Mr. Owens also endorsed VA Secretary Bob McDonald, who was unanimously confirmed by the Senate on Tuesday, replacing acting Secretary Sloan Gibson.

Among the positive qualifications noted by Mr. Owens were his military background, including his education at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, and his leadership background at Procter & Gamble.

“He’s bringing together the right kind of skills and knowledge base to do a good job, and he’s got a big job ahead of him,” he said.

The VA bill will require about $12 billion in new spending after accounting for about $5 billion in unspecified spending cuts from the department’s budget, according to Florida Rep. Jeff Miller, who chairs the House Veterans Affairs Committee, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who chairs the Senate panel.

Despite the steep cost, Mr. Miller said, he is confident he can sell the bill to fellow Republicans, including tea party members.

“Taking care of our veterans is not an inexpensive proposition, and our members understand that,” Mr. Miller said Monday. “The VA has caused this problem and one of the ways that we can help solve it is to give veterans a choice, a choice to stay in the system or a choice to go out of the system” to get government-paid health care from a private doctor.

Pressed on the point by reporters, Mr. Miller said there will be “an educational process that will have to take place” before the House votes on the compromise plan later this week. “Obviously some of our members will need a little more educating than others.”

Rep. Tim Huelskamp., R-Kan., a tea party favorite and a member of the House veterans panel, said “throwing money at the VA won’t solve their problem,” adding that “a fundamental change in culture and real leadership from the president on down is the only way to provide the quality, timely care our veterans deserve.”

Sen. Sanders, for his part, said funding for veterans should be considered as a cost of war, paid for through emergency spending.

“Planes and tanks and guns are a cost of war. So is taking care of the men and women who fight our battles,” he said.

Mr. Miller and Mr. Sanders both predicted passage of the bill by the end of the week, when Congress is set to leave town for a five-week recess.

If approved by Congress and signed by President Barack Obama, the veterans bill would be one of the few significant bills signed into law this year.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Mr. Obama welcomes the bipartisan deal as “much-needed reforms that need to be implemented.”

The White House is especially pleased that the bill includes emergency spending “to provide VA the additional resources necessary to deliver timely, high-quality care to veterans through a strengthened VA system,” Mr. Earnest said.

The VA has been rocked by reports of patients dying while awaiting treatment and mounting evidence that workers falsified or omitted appointment schedules to mask frequent, long delays. The resulting election-year firestorm forced VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign in late May.

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.

The proposed restrictions are important in controlling costs for the program. Congressional budget analysts had projected that tens of thousands of veterans who are not now treated by the VA likely would seek VA care if they could see a private doctor paid for by the government.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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