As FBI opens criminal probe, Congress pushes bill to improve veterans' access to care

As Congress moves ahead with bills to help thousands of veterans receive timely medical care, the FBI said Wednesday that it will conduct a criminal investigation into allegations that staff at Veteran Affairs facilities used secret waitlists to cover up the fact that patients had to wait months for care.

FBI Director James Comey told the House Judiciary Committee that the FBI launched an investigation in Phoenix, the site where the allegations first surfaced, according to Politico. "We will follow it wherever the facts take us," he said.

Acting VA Inspector General Richard Griffin said this week that the department is investigating 69 VA facilities for misconduct that came to light in April, after a retired doctor told CNN that the Phoenix facility had a secret wait list containing the names of thousands of veterans who had yet to receive care and at least 40 veterans died as a result of the delays.

The widespread allegations, confirmed by an internal audit and a preliminary investigation, infuriated the public and Congress, which in rare bipartisan agreement, took action this week to get a bill in the hands of President Barack Obama to allow veterans to receive medical care at outside facilities.

A day after the House approved a similar bill, the Senate Wednesday approved a bill to authorize the spending of $35 billion over three years to pay for outside care for veterans, hire hundreds of doctors and nurses for the VA and lease 26 new health facilities in 17 states and Puerto Rico. The Senate voted 93-3 in favor of the measure. Republican Senators Bob Corker of Tennessee, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Jeff Sessions of Alabama voted against the bill.

White House officials told the AP that President Barack Obama supports the Senate bill. The main difference between the Senate and House version of the bill is that the Senate measure makes it easier to fire top VA officials but includes more employee safeguards, Komonews reports.

Lawmakers hope that Congress will be able to quickly compromise on a final version of the bill. "Maybe we can show the United States of America that people can come together on a very, very important issue and do it in rapid fashion," said Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, according to Komonews.

Meanwhile, the American public is following the VA scandal closely, according to a new Gallup poll. Sixty-nine percent of the 1,027 adults surveyed said they are following the situation "very" or "somewhat closely" in the wake of the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and the widespread allegations of misconduct at VA facilities.  Providing timelier care and firing VA employees were among the top list of fixes supported by those surveyed.

To learn more:
- read the Politico article
- here's the text of the Senate bill (.pdf)
- check out the bill status
- read the AP article via ABC News
- see the Komonews article
- here's the Gallup poll

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