Responding to public outrage over reports of widespread mismanagement at Veterans Affairs hospitals nationwide, the Senate on Wednesday passed legislation with overwhelming bipartisan support that would make it easier for veterans to receive VA-paid treatment from private doctors.
The bill, similar to a House measure that passed unanimously a day earlier, would allow veterans to seek care through non-VA providers for the next two years when the department cannot give the veteran a timely appointment, or if a veteran lives more than 40 miles from the closest VA medical facility. The VA would pick up the tab.
The measure, introduced last week by Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a Vietnam War veteran, cleared the upper chamber at lightning speed, especially compared with the partisan-induced intransigence that has gripped Capitol Hill in recent years.
"Today the Senate showed that when we put our minds to it, we can get things done," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. "The bill that passed the Senate is a big step toward fixing the systemic problems within the VA."
The measure also would give the VA secretary the power to immediately fire poor-performing employees with no pay — including senior department officials.
The bill also calls for the VA to hire more doctors and nurses, provides the department with money to lease 26 major medical facilities across the country and would setup an independent commission to review scheduling and care practices.
McCain called the bill "a beginning — not an end — to the efforts that must be taken to address this crisis."
"Still, the bill includes some of the most significant changes to the VA in decades," the Republican added.
House and Senate negotiators likely will hammer out a final version of the bill in the coming days, with President Obama expected to sign it.
The VA inspector general reported last month that 26 VA facilities nationwide are being investigated for mismanagement, including a Phoenix hospital where 40 patients allegedly died while waiting for treatment as staff there kept a secret list of patients waiting for appointments to hide delays in care.
The inspector general has accused the Phoenix facility of falsifying statistics that concealed an average wait time for medical care of 115 days, with 1,700 veterans not showing up on a waiting list at all. Critics suggest VA officials were motivated by bonuses if their records showed they shortened wait times.
Meanwhile Wednesday, the FBI said it has opened a criminal investigation into the VA scandal.
FBI Director James Comey said 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.
"We're working with the VA IG to follow it wherever the facts take us," Comey told the House Judiciary Committee.
Associated Press reports were used in this article.