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The VA's big problem: Who knew what, and when, in the D.C. office?


A new report that says Department of Veterans Affairs officials in Washington knew about the VA's health care scandal for years is expected to prompt new efforts in Congress to figure out who knew what, and fire anyone in Washington who tried to bury the problem.

The New York Times reported on Christmas Day that a now-fired official from the Phoenix VA office tried to defend herself from being terminated by showing that the health care problems were well known in Phoenix, and weren't her fault. Specifically, former Phoenix director Sharon Helman filed documents showing that Washington knew about Phoenix, and that nothing was done about it even before Helman led that office.

Screen Shot 2014-12-26 at 12.30.53 PM VA Secretary Robert McDonald has indicated little interest in investigating DC-based officials over the health care scandal, but a new report may force his hand.
Image: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

When the VA scandal blew up earlier this year, it seemed clear that many within the VA were well aware of the long wait times, and the inability of some veterans to ever see a doctor. Outrage over that fact forced VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign, and has led to some efforts to fire regional officials for their role in the scandal.

But the evidence filed by Helman will likely to be used as new leverage to root out Washington-based officials under the secretary, who many believe tried to cover up the problem and are still there.

So far, VA Secretary Robert McDonald has indicated he's not willing to try to figure out who in the DC office might be responsible for the various problems around the country. In September, he dodged questions from a reporter who asked if he would try to clean up the DC office, and said his impression was that nobody in Washington was aware of how bad things were in Phoenix or elsewhere.

"I'm telling you why they may not have been aware," McDonald said, arguing that the culture was "too closed" for any information sharing to happen. He also admitted, however, that he hasn't "sat down and asked every single individual."

The papers filed by Helman may force him to do just that. House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) has said for months that the VA needs to clean up its own DC office, and the Helman filing may prompt others to make similar demands.

"Chief among the VA scandal's unanswered questions are whether VA officials in Washington knew about widespread wait time fraud and when they knew it," Miller told Military.com in September.

"Those who surrounded [Shinseki] shielded him from crucial facts and hid bad news reports," Miller said. "We can't allow other VA secretaries to suffer the same fate."

The evidence filed by Helman was in the form of a sworn statement from Susan Bowers, who has since left the VA. Bowers' statement said she warned Washington repeatedly about the failures in Phoenix, and even briefed Shinseki on them in 2009.

That statement from Bowers also appears to have opened up a new critical question about whether the VA can successfully fire anyone for failing to address the scandal.

It was presented during Helman's appeal of McDonald's decision to fire her. In that appeal, an administrative judge found that the VA failed to prove that Helman was to blame for the problems at Phoenix, and said he found it "more likely than not that at least some senior agency leaders were aware, or should have been, of nationwide problems getting veterans schedule for timely appointments."

That statement has alarmed some in Congress, who believe it shows that the VA will have trouble firing anyone for failing to address the scandal, in part because the DC office knew about the problem itself and failed to direct any regional staff.

In the end, Helman was not fired for her role in the scandal at all, and was instead fired for taking nearly $15,000 worth of gifts, including an $11,000 trip to Disneyland.

Miller reacted to the judge's decision earlier this week by again calling for a new probe into the Washington VA office.

"The judge's contention that 'at least some senior agency leaders were aware, or should have been, of [nationwide scheduling] problems' underscores the need for a detailed investigation into whether VA officials in Washington knew about widespread wait time fraud and when they knew it," he said. "VA leaders owe it to our veterans and America’s taxpayers to seek answers these unknowns."

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