WASHINGTON — House lawmakers passed a controversial health care overhaul on Thursday without a clear answer on what the changes could mean for veterans.
Republicans maintain that the new law won't affect any veterans' access to health care and related tax credits. But Democrats insist that it could jeopardize access to care for millions of veterans nationwide, and labeled it an embarrassing mistake for Congress.
"This is not fear mongering, this is not hyperbole," Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., and a member of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, said before the vote. "This bill jeopardizes health care for up to seven million veterans, and everyone should oppose it."
The new American Health Care Act, which passed the House by a 217-213 vote with no Democratic support, is designed to replace the Affordable Care Act signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2010.
The repeal of "Obamacare" was a key campaign promise of President Donald Trump and a host of Republican lawmakers. But the replacement "Trumpcare" measure has faced an uneven path in the House this year, with numerous amendments and concessions in recent weeks to gain enough Republican support for passage.
One of those early changes in March stripped out language specifically stating that veterans who were eligible for VA medical services but not enrolled in them would be eligible for health care tax credits. Republicans have called the language superfluous, saying that existing Internal Revenue Service rules have already established that.
"No matter what verbiage you hear, nothing in this bill changes how veterans are treated under the law," said Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn. "Nothing. The criticisms are flat-out wrong. I'm a veteran, a doctor, and chairman of the Veteran's Affairs Committee. It ain't going to happen."
"I am disturbed that our colleagues in the minority would assert that it does in an effort to score political points against this legislation."
But Democrats have countered that the IRS rule only applies to the Affordable Care Act, not the new health care bill, and removing the language took away their tax credit eligibility. House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Ranking Member Tim Walz, D-Minn., called the situation "absolutely shameful."
"We were loud and clear about the disastrous impact AHCA could potentially have on millions of veterans when the bill was brought up for debate in March," he said. "Unfortunately, House Republicans never listened to our warning, and as a result, if this deeply flawed legislation passes as it is written, millions of veterans and their families could have diminished choice in where to seek care."
The Department of Treasury officials have backed Roe's position, but it remains unclear whether the IRS rules would need to be updated. If so, the new rules could run afoul of Trump's executive order mandating that for every new rule created, two existing regulations must be eliminated.
Officials from Paralyzed Veterans of America earlier this week announced their opposition to the new health care bill, in part because of concerns that it could leave millions of veterans ineligible for the tax credits.
But House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said the measure "delivers on the promises we have made to the American people" and will provide better health care options for all Americans.
The fight is likely to continue in the Senate, where a number of Democrats have already decried the potential negative impacts of the new plan for veterans. Under current Senate rules, Republican leaders will need at least a few Democratic supporters to force a full-chamber vote on the legislation.
Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., said she'll make the veterans issue a key point in her fight against the legislation.
"I'm surprised there wasn't a fix (by Republicans)," she said. "For people who say they want to help veterans, I've not seen any evidence of it."
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.