Senate backs bill to improve VA health care

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 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.

“Make no mistake: This is an emergency,” McCain said.

McCain’s comments came in response to complaints from Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions and other Republicans that the bill was a “blank check” to spend billions of dollars with little or no way to rein it in.

“Money Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., said the VA has “plenty of money” adding: “It’s management and accountability and honesty in treating the veterans” that is needed to improve care for veterans.

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.

More in Local News

Police presence returns to Edmonds School District

Jacob Hubby is set to walk the halls of Meadowdale High School as a school resource officer.

Mukilteo crabber missing; his boat was found at Hat Island

Frank Urbick set out Thursday morning but did not return.

Police looking for leads in case of missing Snohomish man

Henry John Groeneveld, 63, was last seen on Monday, when he said something about going to “the river.”

Separate Everett fires send man to hospital, damage boat

The man was hospitalized for smoke inhalation from the early morning fire.

Suspected escort charged with felony assault, robbery

She allegedly told police she shot the man in the head “because he was performing (a sex act) wrong.”

Lives were on the line

After an estimated 350K emergency calls over 35 years, dispatcher Steve Williams is set to retire.

Celebrating the origins of Christmas

LDS church holds annual nativity festival featuring more than 600 sets.

Drive-by shooting reported in Marysville neighborhood

Police said there was no evidence to indicate it was targeted at a specific person or property.

Trooper’s car struck when he was arresting man for DUI

She drove away but was arrested for investigation of driving under the influence and hit-and-run.

Most Read