More veterans would be eligible for outpatient care at Department of Veterans Affairs healthcare facilities under legislation passed last week by a House committee.
The chairman of a key Senate committee, however, appeared to be less than enthusiastic about the eligibility reform bill because officials estimate it would cost
$3 billion a year.
The House Veterans Affairs Committee voted unanimously to send the legislation to the House floor. The measure would require the VA to enroll patients and provide them all needed outpatient care, including preventive and home care, within the limits of its annual budget.
The legislation still would retain the department's priority system based on severity of veterans' service-related disability, income and other factors.
The legislation also would expand the department's ability to contract with private-sector providers to care for veterans.
Eligibility reform has been a high priority for many members of Congress, the VA and veterans' groups. They contend that rules that make it easier to admit veterans on an inpatient basis instead of treating them in outpatient clinics increase costs in the VA healthcare system, which has a current annual budget of $16.6 billion.
"The bill aims to speed VA's transformation from a hospital system to a healthcare system for the 21st century," said Rep. Tim Hutchinson (R-Ark.), chairman of the House VA healthcare subcommittee.
The Congressional Budget Office said the bill would increase government costs by $3 billion or more a year. The CBO contended it would require the VA to treat some veterans who otherwise would not have sought VA care and that greater outpatient access also would increase hospital admissions.
VA officials said the proposal would not increase the department's costs.
Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.), chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, indicated he might reject the eligibility reform measure because of cost concerns.