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Congress passes $16.3 billion VA health care overhaul, sends bill to White House

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WASHINGTON - Congress passed a landmark bill Thursday to help veterans avoid long waits for health care and fix other problems at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

A 91-3 vote in the Senate sent the $16.3 billion measure to President Barack Obama for his signature. The House had voted overwhelmingly in favour of the bill on Wednesday.

The legislation is a response to reports of veterans dying while awaiting appointments to see VA doctors and coverups of the delays at several of the VA's 1,000 hospitals and outpatient clinics.

The bill devotes $10 billion in emergency spending over three years to pay private doctors and other health professionals to care for qualifying veterans who can't get timely appointments at VA hospitals or clinics or who live more than 40 miles from one of them.

It includes $5 billion for hiring more VA doctors, nurses and other medical staff and $1.3 billion to open 27 new VA clinics across the country. In addition, the legislation makes it easier to fire hospital administrators and senior VA executives for negligence or poor performance.

Voting against the bill Thursday were Republican Sens. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, Bob Corker of Tennessee and Jeff Sessions of Alabama. They said they fear the legislation will swell future budget deficits.

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Follow Matthew Daly: https://twitter.com/MatthewDalyWDC

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