President Donald Trump signed a bill Wednesday to give veterans expanded access to private health care options outside the Veterans Affairs hospital system.
The VA Mission Act, which passed the Senate by a 92-5 vote Wednesday, was promptly signed by the President in an afternoon ceremony. The bill was originally approved by the House of Representatives on May 16 in a similarly lopsided vote.
The act calls for an additional $55 billion in funding, which is intended to serve two separate purposes: shoring up the existing VA health care system, and streamlining the veterans' "Choice" program, which was created in the wake of the 2014 VA scandal.
After it was revealed that veterans were dying waiting for care, Congress created the "Choice" program to allow veterans to use their VA benefit to pay for care at private health care facilities, but the program has been dogged by inadequate funding and administrative delays.
Improving veterans' care was a key campaign issue for Trump, who repeatedly attacked the Obama administration on the campaign trail for its failure to properly care for veterans. The VA Mission Act fulfills his campaign promise to expand veterans' access to private care, rather than keeping them locked into the scandal-ridden VA system.
The bill was opposed by numerous federal employee unions that sent letters to Democratic Senators urging filibusters and "no" votes — all to no avail.
In a statement, the American Federation of Government Employees complained that, "The act will force veterans into a for-profit private hospital after the closure of their VA. By voting to pass S. 2372, Congress is punting on their responsibility to care for the men and women who have served our country and are taking an extremely dangerous step toward privatization."
The AFGE was not clear as to what was "dangerous" about privatization, since no veterans have yet died waiting for care at a private hospital.
The program still faces some funding hurdles, as many Democrats and moderate Republicans who voted for the bill have favored an outright appropriation of $55 billion to fund the project, while the White House is pushing for cuts to other programs to fund the VA reform.