WASHINGTON — A House of Representatives committee on Thursday sharply criticized what it described as a lack of cooperation and transparency by the Department of Veterans Affairs that’s made it difficult for Congress to adequately investigate delays and deaths at VA hospitals, including Dorn VA Medical Center in Columbia.
At a House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs hearing, lawmakers expressed their frustration with the VA, saying it had failed to submit hearing testimony in a timely manner and was slow to respond to requests for information.
The committee has 70 such requests pending with the VA, some of which are more than a year old, according to chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla.
Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., was particularly interested in a report that detailed delays in diagnoses and treatment at VA facilities in Columbia and Augusta.
Mismanagement of the Columbia VA medical center’s gastroenterology program caused delays that left a backlog of nearly 4,000 patients waiting to be examined at one point in 2011, according to a report this month by the VA’s inspector general.
Concern about the backlog at the Columbia facility surfaced in 2009. Since then, at least 280 patients have been diagnosed with malignancies, 52 of which were associated with the delay in treatment, according to the report.
The VA investigation led to “institutional disclosure” letters, which indicate patients suffered death or serious injuries while in the care of the VA, being sent to 19 patients or their families. The report noted nine lawsuits and one death related to the gastroenterology backlog.
Coffman said he’d asked a top VA health system official at a hearing in March about the delays in Columbia and Augusta.
“Nothing to date has been received,” Coffman said.
Joan Mooney, the VA’s assistant secretary for congressional and legislative affairs, said she’d look into the request.
Unsatisfied with her response, Coffman said Mooney was “engaging in the systematic cover-up on information that is embarrassing to the VA about the mistreatment of the veterans who served this country.”
Miller expressed particular concern about pending requests related to a fatal outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease at the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System facility.
“Given that five veterans are dead as a result of the (Legionnaires) outbreak, which VA’s own inspector general attributed to VA mismanagement, the committee is engaged in an investigation into this matter to determine what went wrong and ensure it never happens again,” Miller said. “Unfortunately, we haven’t seen a similar sense of urgency from VA to help us with our investigative efforts.”
The committee sent its request for emails and documents related to the Legionnaire’s disease outbreak on Jan. 18 but hasn’t received the information, Miller said.
Mooney told the committee the VA is working to respond to all congressional requests but that the volume and scope of the requests contributes to a lengthier processing time.
During the last three fiscal years and through August this year, she said, her office has responded to more than 80,000 congressional requests. “Unfortunately, sometimes the sheer volume of work that we receive impedes our ability to provide answers in a timely way,” Mooney said.
Miller responded that Mooney’s office had received a 41 percent increase in budget authority and a 40 percent increase in staff since 2009.
“Resources have been provided, yet frustration persists on a bipartisan and a bicameral basis,” Miller said.
The inspector general report on the gastroenterology problems at Dorn said steps have been taken to remedy the backlog.