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Senate backs vets bill

Broadens access to health care; FBI opens VA probe

– 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 the Department of Veterans Affairs, which is 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 soon be on its way to President Barack Obama for his signature.

The White House said Wednesday that Obama supports the Senate bill.

Sens. Dan Coats, R-Ind., and Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., each voted Wednesday in favor of the bill.

Coats said in a floor speech that his Indianapolis office is trying to help more than 550 veterans who have been unable to obtain satisfactory care or benefits from the VA department.

“Too many bureaucrats view our veterans as a list of numbers rather than the heroes worthy of our very best care,” Coats said in remarks broadcast by C-SPAN.

He said he supports provisions of the legislation that would have VA pay for long-waiting veterans to receive private-sector medical care and that would make it easier for the VA secretary to fire and demote department officials – what he called “the removal of bad actors here.”

“We do know that there have been mistakes, there has been mismanagement, and there has been outright fraud,” said Coats, an Army veteran.

Donnelly lauded the same provisions but added in a statement, “While passage of this bill marks critical progress, there is a lot left to do to ensure veterans get the care they deserve.”

In an earlier vote, Donnelly joined 74 other senators to waive a rule that would have placed budgetary constraints on the legislation; Coats was among 19 Republicans who opposed the waiver.

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 VA 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 scandal led to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki’s resignation May 30.

FBI Director James Comey said Wednesday that the agency’s 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 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.

Brian Francisco of The Journal Gazette contributed to this story.

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