Eight Republican senators have introduced a bill that would make the Veterans Choice Program permanent and expand its eligibility to all veterans enrolled in VA care.

The Care Veterans Deserve bill, drafted by Sen. John McCain of Arizona and others, aims to address issues at the Veterans Affairs Department with appointment wait times and access to care.

Under the bill, any veteran who uses VA health services would be able to use Veterans Choice, a program introduced last year that allows veterans to seek treatment at private health facilities if they live more than 40 miles from a VA facility or have to wait more than a month for an appointment.

VA also would be required to expand pharmacy hours to include nights and weekends, and veterans would be allowed to get treatment at walk-in clinics without preauthorization or a co-payment, according to the draft legislation.

The bill is similar to one introduced last year by McCain, who has sought to find "short- and long-term solutions to problems at VA."

"Much more needs to be done to tear down bureaucratic hurdles that are denying veterans the flexible, quality care they have earned and deserve," McCain said during a press conference Tuesday to introduce the bill. "This legislation is critical to expanding access to care for working veterans while ensuring every veteran has flexibility and choice."

The proposal comes as Congress and members of a congressional commission debate the future of Veterans Affairs health care.

Some veterans groups have raised concerns that Choice expansion is another step toward privatizing veterans health care.

Last year, a task force formed by the advocacy group Concerned Veterans For America released a report calling for placing VA medical facilities under a nonprofit government organization dedicated to treating service-connected conditions. The remainder of veterans care would shift to private health insurance programs, according to the report.

More recently, the panel studying the future of VA care, called the Commission on Care, entertained a report that proposed closing underperforming VA facilities and moving veterans to private care.

Commissioners said that report, called a "strawman," was meant to spark discussion on VA health care options, but veterans groups like the American Legion, Disabled American Veterans and Veterans of Foreign Wars, said they were alarmed by the report, which they said was dismissive of veterans' desire that the VA health care system be improved and possibly expanded.

The Care Veterans Deserve bill would allow 9 million veterans enrolled in VA care to seek treatment at private and nonprofit facilities. It also would open up VA facilities to volunteer community providers to treat veterans during off hours and let VA use health professionals registered or licensed in one state to treat veterans in other states through telemedicine.

"The Care Veterans Deserve Act takes critical steps toward addressing these unacceptable shortcomings, and improves accessibility, health care, and oversight to ensure our veterans are receiving the care they deserve," Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa said.

VA has asked Congress this year for legislation that would consolidate the Veterans Affairs Department's various private health care programs and give it more budget flexibility.

VA Secretary Bob McDonald told Commission on Care members April 18 that VA reforms are underway.

"We are working very closely with Sens. Johnny Isakson [R-Ga.] and Dick Blumenthal [D-Conn.] on bipartisan legislation to clean up a lot of the problems we have," McDonald said.

The Care Veterans Deserve bill is sponsored by John Cornyn, Ted Cruz, Kelly Ayotte, Jeff Flake, Lindsey Graham and Thom Tillis, in addition to McCain and Ernst.

Patricia Kime covers military and veterans health care and medicine for Military Times. She can be reached at pkime@militarytimes.com

Patricia Kime is a senior writer covering military and veterans health care, medicine and personnel issues.

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