Hours after President Barack Obama signed a bill meant to change the way business is done at the Department of Veterans Affairs, a top VA official instructed employees on how to handle questions about misleading information that was given to Congress about veterans who died after treatment delays.
House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill, in Washington, July 28, 2014. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
The official VA line is that the department "inadvertently caused confusion,” Marc Hone, the director of veterans health legislative affairs service, told VA staff in an email.
The congressman leading the investigation into the VA waiting list scandal isn't buying it.
"The department is now attempting to chalk all this up to a misunderstanding, but that explanation doesn’t pass the smell test," House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) said in a statement. "This is a blatant attempt to mislead Congress, the press and the public, and we will not let it stand. Secretary [Robert] McDonald must find out who hatched this plot, and they must be fired. Otherwise, the dishonesty VA has become so notorious for will continue.”
In his email, sent at 3:06 p.m. Thursday, Hone distributed guidelines to VA staff on answering questions from Congress and reporters.
The statement Hone provided reads: “VA initiated an effort to resolve outstanding consults that had been open since 1999. Subsequently, VA initiated a process of looking at open GI endoscopy consults in patients at risk of cancer. These two processes have been intertwined in written and oral statements leading to confusion. These internal, proactive reviews were conducted with the express purpose of improving Veteran care."
“VA cares deeply for every Veteran we are privileged to serve. VA inadvertently caused confusion in its communication on this complex set of reviews that were ongoing at the time. For that, we apologize,” the statement continues. “There was no intent to mislead anyone with respect to the scope or findings of these reviews.”
In April, VA officials told Congress that a review going back to 1999 found that 23 veteran patient deaths were linked to delays in gastrointestinal care. However, a Tampa Bay Times investigation found none of the deaths occurred before 2010. The false numbers were provided to Congress in a VA fact sheet that said it reviewed 250 million consultations for gastrointestinal cancer since 1999. VA officials frequently repeated the statistics thereafter.
Miller pointed out that the deception even fooled former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, who cited the "bogus statistics" during May. Shinseki resigned from his post after the VA waiting list scandal broke.
"Even though landmark VA reform legislation has been signed into law, it seems the same sort of dishonesty and deception that caused the VA scandal is continuing unabated at the Department of Veterans Affairs," Miller said.
“In briefings to congressional staff, in congressional hearings and in discussions with the media in April, top VA central office officials omitted key facts about a review of delays in VA care,” Miller added. “VA’s omission was designed to create the impression that two-dozen preventable veteran deaths linked to delayed care had occurred since 1999, but in reality no fatalities had occurred prior to 2010."
The VA reform bill Obama signed Thursday provides additional resources to medical facilities, allows some veterans to get private medical treatment if VA can't provide time treatment, and allows the VA secretary to more easily fire people.
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