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Congress passes $16.3 billion VA health care overhaul, sends bill to White House

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    Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., followed by House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., leave the Senate TV studio.

    <ASSOCIATED PRESS

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    FILE - This July 22, 2014 file photo shows Veterans Affairs Secretary nominee Robert McDonald testifying on Capitol Hill in Washington. House and Senate negotiators have approved a $17 billion compromise bill to overhaul the Department of Veterans Affairs and reform a program scandalized by veterans' long waits for health care and VA workers falsifying records to cover up delays. The action comes as the Senate is set to vote Tuesday to confirm former Procter & Gamble CEO Robert McDonald as the new VA secretary, replacing Acting Secretary Sloan Gibson. (AP Photo)

    <ASSOCIATED PRESS

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Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., followed by House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., leave the Senate TV studio.

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WASHINGTON — Congress passed a landmark bill Thursday to help veterans avoid long waits for health care and fix other problems at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

A 91-3 vote in the Senate sent the $16.3 billion measure to President Barack Obama for his signature. The House had voted overwhelmingly in favor of the bill on Wednesday.

The legislation is a response to reports of veterans dying while awaiting appointments to see VA doctors and cover-ups of the delays at several of the VA’s 1,000 hospitals and outpatient clinics.

The bill devotes $10 billion in emergency spending over three years to pay private doctors and other health professionals to care for qualifying veterans who can’t get timely appointments at VA hospitals or clinics or who live more than 40 miles from one of them.

It includes $5 billion for hiring more VA doctors, nurses and other medical staff and $1.3 billion to open 27 new VA clinics across the country. In addition, the legislation makes it easier to fire hospital administrators and senior VA executives for negligence or poor performance.

Voting against the bill Thursday were Republican Sens. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, Bob Corker of Tennessee and Jeff Sessions of Alabama. They said they fear the legislation will swell future budget deficits.

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