WASHINGTON (AP) — 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.
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.