CTNJ File Photo
Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy (CTNJ File Photo)

Connecticut’s U.S. senators applauded the Thursday night final passage of legislation sending emergency funding to the embattled veterans health care system and increasing the agency’s authority to dismiss incompetent employees.

The Senate gave final approval to the bill in a 91-3 vote, days after the House passed the measure in a bipartisan vote. Lawmakers from both chambers negotiated the legislation months after revelations of long patient wait times and efforts by federal employees to cover up the Department of Veteran Affairs’ shortcomings.

The bill spends around $17 billion on the veteran’s health care system. It provides funding for vets to access health care services from private providers outside the VA system and provides the agency funding to hire more doctors, nurses and other staff. It also gives the agency more power to fire or demote its senior officials.

In a press release, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, who serves on the Senate Veteran Affairs Committee, called the bill’s passage a “major bipartisan breakthrough” that will help to fix a “broken” system.

“The VA still must change fundamentally, and I will monitor the implementation of these improvements,” he said. “Keeping faith with our veterans is a solemn obligation. It is a cost of war every much as the tanks and ships and arms necessary to wage it.”

U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy said the bill was a good first step to reforming the agency.

“This legislation will help get veterans the treatment they need and deserve by allowing them the flexibility to receive outside medical care when the VA is unable to provide prompt treatment, and giving the VA the tools to crack down on department officials who perpetuate and encourage fraud,” he said in a press release.

The legislation also dedicates money to upgrade 26 existing VA facilities, including the Errera Center in West Haven. According to Blumenthal’s office, the bill spends about $4.88 million to upgrade the center, which helps vets with mental illness, substance abuse, homelessness, and other issues. Murphy said the facility has “had its hands tied” because of inadequate funding.

This week the Senate also voted to approve Robert McDonald’s appointment as the new head of the Veterans Affairs Department. He takes over for Sloan Gibson who has been serving as interim head of the agency since May, when former VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki resigned the position amid controversy.

Blumenthal said the bill “combined with confirmation of Robert McDonald to lead the VA should help assure that we provide every veteran with first class, world class medicine.”