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WASHINGTON - The Obama administration said Saturday it will allow more veterans to obtain health care at private hospitals and clinics in an effort to improve their treatment.

Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki also said VA facilities are enhancing capacity of their clinics so veterans can get care sooner. In cases where officials cannot expand capacity at VA centers, the Department of Veterans Affairs is "increasing the care we acquire in the community through non-VA care," Shinseki said.

Lawmakers from both parties have pressed for this policy change as the VA confronts allegations that veterans have died while awaiting treatment at VA centers. The VA also faces allegations that employees have falsified appointment records to cover up delays in care.

The directive should make it easier for veterans to get medical care at non-VA facilities, according to an agency spokeswoman.

A spokesman for Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla, chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, said Miller was pleased by Shinseki's announcement, but wondered why it took so long. Reports that as many as 40 veterans may have died while awaiting treatment at the Phoenix hospital surfaced more than a month ago.

Miller said in a statement Friday that Shinseki and President Barack Obama were engaged "in an endless discussion regarding allegations, investigations and unreliable internal VA reviews" while "overlooking VA's very real, very deadly and very well-documented delays in care problem."

Miller has pledged to introduce legislation that would give any veteran who is unable to obtain a VA appointment within 30 days of application the option to receive non-VA care at the department's expense.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has called for the VA to allow more veterans to receive medical care at private hospitals. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said this past week that she was open to the idea of medical care at private hospitals. She said it was unacceptable to have a backlog of patients waiting for permission to go to a federally qualified clinic.

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