By Leo Shane III
Staff writer
Jul. 31, 2014 - 09:08 PM

The Senate overwhelmingly gave final approval to a $16.3 billion Veterans Affairs reform bill on Thursday night, sending the measure to the White House and giving Congress a legislative victory before the start of its summer break.

The 91-3 vote came after weeks of negotiation between VA oversight committees and one day after the House approved the same measure by a similarly lopsided 420-5 vote. The only objections came from conservatives who criticized the lack of offsets to cover the cost of the legislation.

President Obama is expected to sign the bill into law in coming days. Lawmakers and veterans groups have touted the comprehensive measure as an urgent need to help fix the problems facing the beleaguered VA department.

The legislation would make it easier to fire senior VA officials for incompetence or poor performance, a proposal which has drawn strong support from lawmakers and outside critics of the department.

It includes a 30-day appeal process to ensure the firing authority isn’t abused, but federal employee groups have insisted the move will make it harder to hire top talent within the department.

The legislation allots $10 billion to expand private care options for veterans who face medical appointment wait times of more than 30 days or who live more than 40 miles from a VA health facility.

Officials will create a “veterans choice card” that patients can take to doctors outside the system, to receive care while the department picks up the bill. To be eligible, veterans will need to already be enrolled in the VA health care system or have served in a combat theater in the last five years.

Another $5 billion will go towards hiring more clinicians and starting minor repairs of existing VA hospitals and clinics. Department officials asked for almost $18 billion over three years for those initiatives, but House members expressed concerns about the lack of specifics in that request.

House Veterans Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., earlier in the week called the $5 billion agreement a “down payment” on those proposals, with additional funds to be discussed in future appropriations bills.

It will also pay for leases at 27 new medical facilities to give more VA space for medical appointments in 18 states and Puerto Rico.

The measure also includes a host of proposals already addressed in previous, incomplete bills.

Those issues include setting in-state tuition rates for any veteran attending a public state school on the post-9/11 GI Bill, extending housing funding for veterans with traumatic brain injury, and expanding care for military sexual trauma victims.

About $5 billion of the cost of the measure would be recouped through provisions like capping employee bonuses and renewing home loan fees. But the rest of the money would come from emergency funding, which conservatives have criticized for adding to the federal deficit.

Still, the overwhelming support for the package — and the expected support of the president to sign the measure into law — gives lawmakers a positive accomplishment to take back to their home districts in the days ahead.

Veterans groups had demanded Congress take some action before August to address reports of severe wait time problems facing veterans nationwide and what they perceive as the lack of accountability among VA employees.