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An American flag flies in front of the Atlanta VA Medical Center in Atlanta. The FBI revealed on Wednesday, June 11, 2014, that it had opened a criminal investigation into a Department of Veterans Affairs reeling from allegations of falsified records and inappropriate scheduling practices

David Goldman, AP

Dennis Dallacqua, front, and others waited at an American Legion post in Phoenix that is helping veterans get health care.

Mark Henle • Arizona Republic,

FBI opens criminal inquiry on VA scandal

  • Article by: Richard Simon
  • Los Angeles Times
  • June 11, 2014 - 9:47 PM

– The Senate on Wednesday broke through the usual partisan gridlock to swiftly approve legislation aimed at reducing veterans’ long waits for health care, as the FBI announced that it has launched a criminal probe in the Department of Veterans Affairs scandal.

The bill would allow veterans facing long waits at VA facilities to seek care from private doctors, expand the VA secretary’s authority to fire staff for poor performance, and authorize the department to lease 26 new health facilities in 17 states and Puerto Rico. It also would provide $500 million for expedited hiring of new VA doctors and nurses.

The 101-page compromise Veterans’ Access to Care through Choice, Accountability and Transparency Act was written and approved with unusual speed, a reflection of the political importance to both parties of the nearly 6.5 million veterans who use VA’s 1,700 hospitals and clinics.

“There are serious problems at the VA now, and they must be addressed now,” Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, told colleagues.

“There’s no way we can compensate for those who have gone without the treatment that they’ve earned,” added Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who developed the compromise legislation with Sanders. “But at least we can expeditiously fix this problem to the best of our ability.”

McCain called the legislation a beginning to “fix this gaping wound in America’s conscience.”

Phoenix agents take lead

The measure’s passage came as FBI Director James Comey told the House Judiciary Committee that the FBI has begun a criminal probe of the VA scandal.

Comey said FBI agents in Phoenix are leading the investigation. The veterans medical center in Phoenix is at the center of the national scandal, which led to Eric Shinseki’s resignation as Veterans Affairs secretary in May.

The inspector general of the Department of Veterans Affairs had already said that the Justice Department was looking into the matter, but Comey’s testimony was the first indication that a criminal investigation was underway.

“We will follow wherever the facts take us,” Comey said in a brief response to a committee member, Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Wash.

An inspector general report found that officials used a variety of schemes to hide the fact that veterans faced long waits for medical treatment.

The VA inspector general has been working with the Justice Department, but lawmakers from both parties have pressed for the FBI to play a bigger role in the investigation.

The Senate bill must be reconciled with House VA reform legislation. But the bills include a number of similarities, including allowing veterans who are unable to receive an appointment at a VA facility within the department’s wait-time goals or living 40 miles from a VA facility to seek private care.

But there are a few differences that could prove tricky during House-Senate negotiations on a final bill. Still, Sanders said he was “absolutely confident” that the House and Senate negotiators will be able to reach agreement.

Senate bill is broader

The Senate bill, like a House-approved measure, would expand the VA secretary’s authority to fire or demote senior staff for poor performance.

But the Senate bill includes due-process protections for employees to prevent what Sanders called the “politicization of the VA.”

A House bill approved Tuesday would eliminate VA bonuses for fiscal 2014 through 2016, while the Senate bill would eliminate the use of waiting times for determining employee bonuses.

The Senate bill also would extend college education benefits to spouses of service members killed in the line of duty, guarantee in-state tuition for veterans at public colleges and universities and improve access to health care for military sexual assault victims.

The vote on the measure was 93-3 with Republican Sens. Bob Corker of Tennessee, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Jeff Sessions of Alabama voting no. Corker and Sessions cited the cost as a reason for their opposition.

The measure passed by the Senate may cost the federal government $35.5 billion over the first three years, Bloomberg News reported.

A preliminary analysis of the plan to let veterans seek care from non-VA providers shows it may ultimately cost about $50 billion a year, according to the Congressional Budget Office, the federal government’s scorekeeper. Some of those costs would be offset by savings to Medicare, CBO said.

“The cost of war does not end when the last shots are fired and the last missiles are launched,” Sanders said.

The CBO estimated that as the program ramps up, the additional care would cost $500 million this year, $10 billion in 2015 and $25 billion in 2016.

© 2014 Star Tribune