House lawmakers on Thursday advanced legislation that would automatically enroll separating service members into the Veterans Affairs medical system, an effort to streamline their access to that care if they need it.

The move has for years been championed by advocates as a potential way to increase veterans’ use of VA care and reduce some of the confusion connected to the massive health system. Past research has shown that veterans enrolled in VA medical care are less likely to die by suicide than their peers outside of the system.

The measure would affect about 60,000 individuals a year. Instead of formally applying for VA medical services, department officials would automatically add them to the system if they met the requirements for eligibility.

“We shouldn’t be trying to hide VA care from those who earned it,” said House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takano, D-Calif., the sponsor of the measure.

“We know that the months following transition out of the military can be very stressful and particularly risky for those new veterans in terms of mental health. … This [measure] helps simplify the process and prevents veterans from potentially missing out on lifesaving care.”

White House officials have backed the measure, although they have noted that implementing it and adding thousands of new names to the VA medical system could strain operations.

The department currently provides medical services for about 9 million veterans, about half of the veteran population in America today. Service members are typically eligible for some medical services for the first few years after separating and remain able to access the care after that if they have service-connected injuries or financial challenges.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates the measure would cost about $3.1 billion over the next five years, with individual veterans saving an average of about $3,900 in health care costs.

The measure received opposition from some House Republicans who said the costs and impact of the changes have not yet been fully addressed and who complained that the moves amount to federal overreach.

“This act enrolls separating service members into the VA healthcare system without their knowledge or consent,” said Rep. Mike Bost, R-Ill. the ranking member of the veterans committee.

“We shouldn’t be signing veterans up for a government program they aren’t asking for and may never need without at least letting them know first. And we shouldn’t be telling them that if they don’t like it, they can figure out how to disenroll themselves. That’s backwards. Veterans deserve better than that.”

But Takano and supporters argued that the move is about making accessing the system simpler, not forcing individuals to use VA services against their will.

The final vote on the measure was 265-163, with 44 Republicans joining all of the present chamber Democrats in supporting the plan.

The measure now heads to the Senate, where it faces an uncertain timeline for potential consideration. Several veterans reform measures passed by the House are pending before the chamber, which has been focused on voting rights and federal spending measures of late.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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