House lawmakers on Wednesday overwhelmingly passed legislation expanding veterans' access to private care at taxpayer expense, a campaign promise of President Donald Trump, and adding more money to the "Choice program" weeks before VA officials said it could run out of money.
The $51 billion plan that passed 347-70 Wednesday includes $5.2 billion for the VA Choice program that funds private care. VA officials have warned that the program could run out of money as early as the end of the month, disrupting care for patients.
Hours before the House vote, Trump weighed in, urging lawmakers to back the bill.
"House votes today on Choice/MISSION Act," Trump tweeted on Wednesday. "Who will stand with our Great Vets, caregivers, and Veterans Service Organizations? Must get Choice passed by Memorial Day!"
A similar plan almost became law as part of the omnibus spending bill in March, but was blocked by some Democrats concerned about privatization of services for the nation's veterans.
There has been a long simmering debate about the extent to which veterans obtain care in the private sector. Many veterans groups say they don't want to see too many resources shifted outside the VA, a move they say would fundamentally bleed the health system dry.
The legislation is moving forward in Congress as the sprawling agency remains without a permanent leader after Trump ousted former Secretary David Shulkin and the nomination of Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson, the White House physician, unraveled amid allegations about his professional conduct.
It would also launch a review of VA facilities with an eye toward closing under-performing institutions and would expand a VA caregivers program to cover the families of pre-9/11 veterans.