WASHINGTON – The Senate acted Wednesday to help thousands of military veterans enduring long wait times for VA medical care, as the FBI revealed it has opened a criminal investigation into a Veterans Affairs Department reeling from allegations of falsified records and inappropriate scheduling practices.
The Senate bill, approved 93-3, makes it easier for veterans who have encountered delays getting initial visits to receive VA-paid treatment from local doctors instead. The measure closely resembles a bill approved unanimously Tuesday in the House, prompting optimism among lawmakers from both parties that a compromise version could be on its way soon to President Barack Obama for his signature.
The White House said Wednesday that Obama supports the Senate bill.
The Senate bill would authorize about $35 billion over three years to pay for outside care for veterans, as well as hire hundreds of doctors and nurses and lease 26 new health facilities in 17 states and Puerto Rico. The House bill would spend about $620 million over the same period.
The Veterans Affairs Department released an audit this week showing that more than 57,000 veterans have had to wait at least three months for initial appointments. Another 64,000 veterans who asked for appointments over the past decade never got them.
"The cost of war does not end when the last shots are fired and the last missiles are launched," said Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. "The cost of war continues until the last veteran receives the care and the benefits that he or she is entitled to and has earned on the battlefield."
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who drafted the bill with Sanders, called the bill "a beginning – not an end – to the efforts that must be taken" to address the crisis affecting veterans' health care.
While the legislation will not solve all the VA's problems, it should "spark long-overdue change – from the top down – in order to ensure our veterans are getting the care and support they expect and deserve," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.
Support for the bill was not unanimous. Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions and other Republicans complained that the measure was a "blank check" to spend billions of dollars with little or no way to rein it in.
"Make no mistake: This is an emergency," McCain retorted.
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., supported the bill, but said "money is not the problem" at the VA. "It's management and accountability and honesty in treating the veterans" that are needed to improve care for veterans, Coburn said.
In addition to Sessions, Republican Sens. Bob Corker of Tennessee and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin voted no.
Four senators did not vote: Republicans Thad Cochran of Mississippi and Jerry Moran of Kansas, and Democrats Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Jeff Merkley of Oregon.
The final tally was delayed for more than an hour as the Senate waited for Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., to vote. Graham was returning to Washington after Tuesday's GOP primary in South Carolina and was caught up in rush-hour traffic.
The Senate vote came as the FBI revealed it has opened a criminal investigation into the VA. FBI Director James Comey said Wednesday that the investigation was being led by the FBI's field office in Phoenix, which he described as the "primary locus of the original allegations" being investigated by the VA's Office of Inspector General.
"We're working with the VA IG to follow it wherever the facts take us," Comey told the House Judiciary Committee.
The inspector general said in a report last month that 1,700 veterans seeking treatment at the Phoenix VA hospital were at risk of being "lost or forgotten." The VA has confirmed that at least 35 veterans died while awaiting treatment in Phoenix, although officials say they do not know whether the deaths were related to long waiting times for appointments.
The Justice Department had said that federal prosecutors were reviewing documents from the inspector general to determine whether to launch a full-fledged investigation. The involvement of the FBI represents an escalation into concerns of possible criminal conduct by VA employees, though it remains unclear whether investigators will find any basis for prosecution.
Richard Griffin, the VA's acting inspector general, issued a scathing report last month that confirmed allegations of excessive waiting time at VA hospitals and inappropriate scheduling practices. He told lawmakers his investigators were probing for wrongdoing at 69 agency medical facilities, up from 42 two weeks ago
The VA, which serves almost 9 million veterans, has been reeling from mounting evidence that workers falsified reports on wait times for medical appointments in an effort to mask frequent, long delays. An internal audit released this week showed that more than 57,000 new applicants for care have had to wait at least three months for initial appointments and an additional 64,000 newly enrolled vets who requested appointments never got them.
VA Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned May 30, but the situation remains a continuing embarrassment for Obama and a potential political liability for congressional Democrats seeking re-election in November.
The Senate bill, like the House measure approved Tuesday, would let veterans facing long delays for appointments or living more than 40 miles from a VA facility choose to get care from non-agency providers for the next two years. Some veterans already get outside care, but the process is cumbersome and riddled with delays, veterans and their advocates say.
The Senate bill also would restrict controversial bonuses given to VA employees for meeting certain performance goals and would make it easier to fire top VA officials. Legislation approved in the House would ban bonuses outright through 2016 and would not include employee safeguards provided in the Senate bill.