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House votes to strip VA bonus money, and it is a whole lot of money

Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla. chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, greets witnesses as the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs holds a hearing to examine why thousands of military veterans have been waiting for up to three months for medical appointments, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, June 9, 2014. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

Frustrated members of the House got revenge against what they see as an incompetent Department of Veterans Affairs, by passing a bill that stops the VA from spending hundreds of millions of dollars on performance bonuses from fiscal years 2014 to 2016.

Instead, the VA would be required to use that money to provide expanded healthcare options to the thousands of veterans who have yet to receive any healthcare under the VA system.

Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla. saw the House easily pass his latest VA reform bill on Tuesday. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) said a substantial amount of money will be saved each year just by blocking bonus payments.

"Our latest estimate suggest that a temporary elimination of bonuses and other incentives will free up roughly $400 million per year that can be immediately utilized for the expanded patient choice options under this bill," he said. Miller added that the bill would require an assessment of exactly how much the bill would save, and gives the VA the option of asking for more money if it's needed.

The legislation instructs the VA to pay for healthcare services for veterans who live more than 40 miles away from the closest VA hospital. This option would be available to veterans who have waited longer than the VA's wait time goal, to those who have been told an appointment is not available within a reasonable amount of time.

Miller proposed his bill on Monday, just hours after the VA released the results of its internal audit about long wait times for healthcare in the VA system. That audit found 57,000 veterans were waiting for 90 days before getting their first medical appointment, and that 64,000 veterans had been denied appointments after requesting them.

But while it was quickly introduced, it was easily passed in a 421-0 vote, after a brief debate that heard support from both Republicans and Democrats. Later in the day, the House approved it again, 426-0, to accommodate members who missed the first vote.

"We often hear that the care the veterans receive at the VA facilities is second to none, that is, if you can get in," said Rep. Michael Michaud (D-Maine), the top Democrat on the committee.

"The gravity of the delay in care that veterans from all areas are experiencing cannot be overstated and is totally unacceptable," he said. "This legislation would help to alleviate the backlog of veteran patients waiting to be seen at VA medical facilities."

Miller said the delays, which VA has said contributed to the death of 40 veterans, are a "national disgrace," but even worse, are a medical emergency for thousands of veterans still seeking care.

Tuesday's vote marks the third time the House has passed a bill to punish the VA for failing to reduce wait times for veterans, and then covering up that failure by manipulating wait time data.

On Monday, members passed a bill requiring the VA's Office of Inspector General to report to Congress whenever the VA fails to follow the IG's recommendations. Before that, the House passed a bill allowing the VA secretary to immediately fire people involved in that scandal.

But it's less clear when the Senate will move on a bill. Last week, Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) reached an agreement that also expands care options for veterans, but adds new language to let fired VA officials appeal those decisions.

Tuesday morning, Sanders said he hopes the Senate can pass that bill this week.

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