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  • Washington Highlights

    Senate Approves VA Spending; House VA Committee Approves Series of Bills

    Matthew Shick, Sr. Director, Gov't Relations & Regulatory Affairs
    Christa Wagner, Manager, Government Relations

    Ranging from House subcommittees to the full Senate, Congress considered Department of Veterans’ Affairs (VA) funding, legislative proposals affecting the VA, and the president’s nominee for Secretary of Veterans Affairs.

    The Senate June 25 approved its version of the Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies (MilCon-VA) fiscal year (FY) 2019 appropriations bill (H.R. 5895). Of note, the FY 2019 MilCon-VA bill includes: an additional $750 million for the Medical Services account, totaling $49.9 billion for FY 2019, a 6.5% increase over FY 2018 as well as $51.4 billion in advance appropriations for FY 2020; an additional $1 billion for the Medical Community Care account, totaling $9.4 billion for FY 2019, a decrease of 4.5% from FY 2018 and $10.8 billion in advance appropriations for FY 2020.

    The bill also provides $779 million for the VA Medical and Prosthetic Research Program, a $57 million (7.9%) increase over FY 2018. This bill remained largely unchanged from the Appropriations Subcommittee markup [see Washington Highlights, June 8]. The House and Senate Appropriations committees will next select conferees to settle differences between the two chambers’ bills. The House marked up and approved its own version of the MilCon-VA bill in April [see Washington Highlights, April 27].

    In the House, the VA Health Subcommittee June 26 marked up several pieces of legislation following a June 13 hearing on these bills [see Washington Highlights, June 22]. In particular, this markup considered:

    • The Veterans-Specific Education for Tomorrow’s Medical Doctors (VET MD) Act (H.R. 2787), which establishes a three-year pilot program of at least five VA medical centers to provide clinical observation opportunities to undergraduate students;
    • The VA Hospitals Establishing Leadership Performance Act (H.R. 5864), which would establish qualifications for human resources positions at VA; and
    • A bill (H.R. 6066) that would require the Secretary to track relative value units (RVUs) for all VA providers in an attempt to better monitor provider productivity.

    All three bills were reported favorably out of subcommittee and will now be slated for consideration before the full House VA committee.

    Finally, the Senate VA Committee June 27 held a hearing regarding the nomination of Robert Wilkie as Secretary of Veterans Affairs [see Washington Highlights, May 18]. In his opening statement, Mr. Wilkie said he would make improving access to care a priority, by implementing orecently the recently passed VA MISSION Act (P.L. 115-185) [see Washington Highlights, May 4], as well as through implementation of innovative IT solutions and new electronic health records. Ranking Member Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Senator Dean Heller (R-Nev.) both questioned the nominee about provider vacancies at the VA. Mr. Wilkie responded that VA needs to target the highest need providers (including primary care, internists, mental health providers, and women’s health providers), while also considering recruitment incentives. Mr. Wilkie noted an interest in service-obligated loan repayment strategies, and he offered that VA consider methods employed successfully by other agencies to recruit and retain health care providers.

    Both chambers will be out of session for the Independence Day congressional recess until July 9. Consideration of appropriations bills, new legislation, and a vote on Mr. Wilkie’s nomination are expected to resume that week.