STEVENSVILLE, Mont. - The House overwhelmingly passed a bipartisan bill aimed at reforming the troubled Veterans Administration. By a 420 to 5 vote, the House approved the $17 billion bill. About $10 billion is spent to allow veterans stuck with long wait times to see private doctors. Another $5 billion is specified to add doctors and staff.
The bill also empowers the V.A. secretary to more quickly discipline and fire managers.
The Senate is now expected to easily pass the bill this week, before Congress leaves on its August break.
NBC Montana met veterans affairs advocate Eric Wells in Stevensville. We wanted to get his impressions of the bill.
Under the bill, veterans could see private doctors outside the V.A. system if the waiting time is more than 30 days, or they live 40 miles from a V.A. clinic.
"To be able to go out to see a civilian doctor if they can't provide it," said Wells. "Something has to be done, because there's a promise that was given to every one of us veterans."
Wells is a Navy veteran who waited 14 months for a knee replacement.
There's $5 billion set aside to hire more doctors at V.A. hospitals.
Attracting doctors to rural Montana can be a challenge.
"To get permanent, good quality doctors up here in Montana," said Wells, "it's rough."
There's $2 billion in the bill to expand community-based clinics in 27 locations.
"Now, that's nationally," said Wells, "27 locations isn't many, considering we've got 14 in the state, and there are places that we could utilize more."
Wells said he likes the bill, but said it could be better.
The advocate is preparing for the Ravalli County Veterans Stand Down in Hamilton Friday and Saturday. The Stand Down helps homeless veterans with survival gear and clothing, haircuts, eye exams, and other basic services, plus counseling.
But Wells said the V.A. has cut back on expenses this year.
"The strings this year, the V.A. has put on it," said the veteran, "is we have to give only to the extreme, total line homeless that has to be under a bridge, in a car, in a tent, but not in a shelter."
Wells said there are hundreds of veterans in Ravalli County who don't live in their cars, or under bridges, but still face the threat of not having anywhere to live. They need attention now, he said.