The Senate passed a bipartisan bill Wednesday designed to improve veterans’ access to health care, following news earlier in the day that the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Phoenix office would explore criminal allegations inside the embattled Department of Veterans Affairs.
Sponsored by Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and John McCain, R-Ariz., the bill seeks to allocate resources for 26 new VA facilities in 18 states, as well as $500 million to hire more doctors and nurses, among other provisions. Its passage comes one day after the House unanimously approved a nearly identical bill.
“Our job is to make certain that every veteran in the country gets quality health care in a timely manner,” Sanders said in a statement after the vote. “At a time when 2 million more veterans have come into the VA in the last four years, we must ensure that there are enough doctors, nurses and other health care professionals to meet the needs of veterans in every facility in the country.”
Speaking to members of the House Judiciary Committee earlier Wednesday, FBI Director James Comey confirmed that the bureau had opened an investigation into a VA office in Phoenix, where an interim report by the VA inspector general’s office found some 1,700 veterans waiting for care. Though the probe will initially focus on Arizona, Comey said the FBI plans to “follow it wherever the facts take us.” According to the Associated Press, the Justice Department had formally asked the FBI to review materials provided by the VA inspector general.
The announcement of an investigation comes nearly two weeks after retired Gen. Eric Shinseki resigned as Veterans Affairs secretary amid widespread backlash over the scandal. In addition to the inspector general’s report, which found “systemic” problems in the VA’s scheduling procedures, a retired doctor alleged in April that long wait times within the Phoenix VA health care system led to the deaths of at least 40 veterans. On Monday, the VA also released an internal audit that found more than 100,000 veterans subjected to wait times of 90 days or more at medical facilities nationwide, along with widespread efforts to cover up the delays.
The FBI had already been doing an initial assessment of the evidence, according to NBC’s Pete Williams, but it is now taking the next step by opening an investigation. Federal prosecutors will be working with the investigators to determine whether there are grounds for criminal charges.