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The Senate passed a VA bill that expands access to private care — and it's expensive

Senator John McCain is a lead sponsor of the Senate bill.
Senator John McCain is a lead sponsor of the Senate bill.
Kris Connor / Getty Images Entertainment

Moving with surprising speed, the Senate on Wednesday passed a bipartisan bill to address the VA scandal

The bill, however, could greatly increase the VA's health spending, according to a preliminary analysis from budget forecasters.

Part of the Senate bill allows veterans to access VA-reimbursed care at private hospitals and clinics through a two-year pilot program, instead of relying on VA-operated facilities. The idea is to reduce strain on the VA system by letting veterans access outside sources of care in a more timely manner.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates such improvements in access would lead veterans to use 60 percent more VA-funded care, as well as increase the number of veterans enrolled into the VA system. That won't, however, happen all at once; the CBO expects the VA to build its capacity for private care over time.

In total, the CBO estimates the proposal would cost more than $35 billion over the next three years. The cost would presumably grow if Congress decided to continue the program beyond that.

The total cost makes up a small portion of the overall federal budget, but it's a lot of money for a divided, dysfunctional Congress that's been highly resistant to raising government spending in the past.

The CBO scored only one aspect of the proposed Senate bill. Other portions of the bill will fund the VA so it can build more hospitals and hire more doctors, both of which are estimated to cost nearly $2 billion.

The House of Representatives already passed a couple VA bills, and one of them also includes a proposal to give veterans more access to private care. The House and Senate will need to go to conference to reconcile their competing proposals for fixing the VA, and afterward the final bill would go to the president's desk for a signature or veto.

Update: Added more context about the CBO's score.