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 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 in the same period.
The Veterans Affairs Department released an audit this week showing more than 57,000 veterans have had to wait at least three months for initial appointments. Another 64,000 veterans who asked for appointments in the past decade never got them.
The Senate vote came as the FBI revealed it has opened a criminal investigation into the VA. FBI Director James Comey said Wednesday 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.
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 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.