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.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said the legislation would not solve all the VA's problems, but 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."
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.
Associated Press writer Eric Tucker contributed to this report.
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