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Watchdog: Accountability

Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki says agency is open and accountable, then clams up

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Openness and accountability are important to maintain the public's trust in the Department of Veterans Affairs, Secretary Eric Shinseki told a congressional committee Thursday.

But then he refused to answer reporters’ questions about whether top administrators were disciplined for preventable patient deaths at veterans’ hospitals.

Transparency is an important aspect of our being able to establish and retain trust in this department,” Shinseki told the House Committee on Veterans Affairs during a hearing about the agency's $163.9 billion budget proposal for the 2015 fiscal year. “It's a high item on my list of things that we commit to.”

Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., confronted Shinseki about roughly 70 recent instances he'd found in which Veterans Affairs officials refused to respond to media questions on topics including disability claims backlogs, patient deaths and the mass purging of scheduled medical tests and procedures.

Huelskamp also pressed Shinseki about whether people in charge of veteran’s medical facilities where preventable deaths occurred had been disciplined. Shinseki responded “we do hold employees accountable.”

Six members of the Senior Executive Service, the top tier of agency management, have been “dismissed” over the past two years, Shinseki said without providing any details.

Last year, about 3,000 employees were forced out of their jobs agency-wide because of performance issues, he said.

When the Washington Examiner tried to question Shinseki for specifics after the hearing, he refused to answer and dashed off to a waiting elevator, surrounded by a cadre of his staff.

VA has been under fire for a series of recent deaths due to delayed or improper care at medical centers in Georgia, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Tennessee.

At least 22 preventable deaths have been acknowledged by VA officials or identified by the agency's inspector general in recent investigations.

That includes the disclosure last month that a sixth death was probably linked to Legionnaire's disease at a veteran's hospital in Pittsburgh.

Internal VA documents indicate there were at least 10 additional deaths nationwide due to delayed endoscopic procedures, which have not been explained by the agency.

Shinseki did not address individual cases or specify facilities where discipline resulted.

At a Feb. 26 subcommittee hearing, Robert Petzel, under secretary for health, said three senior-level employees resigned rather than be disciplined in Columbia, S.C., where six patients died due to delayed care.

Petzel added “a number of people” retired or resigned in Augusta, Ga., where delayed care has been linked to three patient deaths.

However, the Augusta Chronicle reported this week that the former chief of staff at the Augusta hospital resigned that position, yet remains on the hospital's payroll in a different job.

Disciplinary investigations in Pittsburgh were delayed because the inspector general was conducting a criminal investigation, which did not result in charges, Petzel said during the February hearing. They are still under review and should be completed shortly, he said.

On the transparency issue, Huelskamp said he is concerned about VA’s unwillingness to answer questions about its problems and urged Shinseki to be more open with the media, members of Congress and the public.

Shinseki said he would check into it.

The VA’s public affairs office, which handles media calls, has 54 full-time employees, according to the current year’s budget.

The budget proposal for 2015 includes $95.6 billion in mandatory spending for disability and other benefits, and $68.4 billion in discretionary funds that pay for health care and other services.

Medical funding for 2016 would also be funded in advance, which protects it from being suspended during government shutdowns such as the one that occurred in October 2013.

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Author:

Mark Flatten

Senior Watchdog Reporter
The Washington Examiner