Remember the VA scandal? You might be forgiven for letting it slip your mind, given that (a) its series of disgraceful revelations was several crises ago, and (b) that Congress has passed decent (but not permanent) legislation to "fix" the system. But there's a reason why the CNN correspondent who's covered this story most closely bluntly questioned the feasibility of righting the VA ship without "throwing out" vast numbers of its managers: An endemic culture of corruption and accountability-dodging. Drew Griffin's skepticism was no doubt reinforced when the department's Inspector General released its findings in late August, concluding that it could not definitively link the VA's pervasive and deliberate manipulation of wait times and care lists to any deaths. Critics immediately questioned the methodology behind that verdict, complaining that the IG's standards of proof made were "virtually impossible" to meet. Whistleblowers had previously alleged that VA corruption had resulted in at least 40 deaths in the Phoenix area alone. Sources told CBS News that agency officials successfully pressured the IG to "water down" its findings:
Two of the doctors who first blew the whistle on the veterans' deaths in Phoenix say the inspector general botched the investigation and went too easy on the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). One says the IG engaged in a whitewash of what happened there, bowing to pressure from inside the agency, reports CBS News correspondent Wyatt Andrews. The issue surrounds the investigation into whether more than 40 veterans at the Phoenix VA died while waiting to see the doctor. The IG's final report in August concluded that it "[could not] conclusively assert" that long wait times "caused the deaths of these veterans." According to one whistleblower who spoke to CBS News, however, that crucial assertion was not in the original draft of the report. He told CBS News that the Inspector General added the line about how wait times did not cause the deaths at the last minute. Our source, who works at VA headquarters and who spoke exclusively to CBS News, said officials inside the agency asked for a revision of the first draft. That's standard practice, but in this case the source said it amounted to pressure on Inspector General Richard Griffin to add a line to water down the report. "The organization was worried that the report was going to damn the organization," the whistle-blower said. "And therefore it was important for them to introduce language that softened that blow."
The purpose of these inquiries is to expose the whole truth, not to "soften blows" on behalf of the entities under investigation. The IG's office denied the allegation of VA tampering, but the controversial exculpatory line was added to the report prior to publication. At a Wednesday hearing described as "heated" and "contentious," the Inspector General appeared to reverse himself on the link between delays and veteran deaths:
A senior official from the Department of Veterans Affairs’ watchdog agency acknowledged for the first time on Wednesday that delays in care had contributed to the deaths of patients at the department’s medical center in Phoenix. The disclosure by an official from the department’s inspector general’s office, coming after more than two hours of tough, sometimes confrontational exchanges with members of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, was a significant development in what has become a heated dispute over the quality of care at the Phoenix hospital, where revelations of secret waiting lists and other schemes to disguise long delays in care turned into a national scandal. Republicans characterized the acknowledgment as an about-face, and expressed frustration and some anger that a report on the Phoenix hospital issued by the inspector general last month contained language widely viewed as playing down concerns about a link between the medical-care delays and veterans’ deaths.
Here's a VA whistleblower blasting the widely-criticized report as "at best a whitewash" at the same hearing:
If the department can't honestly grapple with the scope and consequences its own egregious failures, how can it be expected to aggressively implement and comply with needed reforms? By the way, it took CBS until the final paragraph of its story to mention this seemingly significant statistic: "Newly released figures show that 293 veterans died -- not 40 -- while on those secret wait lists. That does not mean the veterans died from lack of care, but families are already asking if the Phoenix investigation should be reopened." Again, this in just one location. Delayed care, and the cover-up thereof, was a contributing factor in at least some of these hundreds of deaths. How many? We still don't know. The DC 'do something' crowd may consider this issue to be "over" and dealt with, but that's clearly not the case. Fox Business Network's The Independents covered these latest "more of the same" developments last night:
Remember that six-to-ten month waits for treatment related to combat wounds were still commonplace at the Phoenix VA system as of this spring. Meanwhile, those bonus checks still cashed, and Democrats were still quietly ignoring the kisses they blew at the VA system during the Obamacare debate. The president ran on reforming veterans' healthcare in 2008, then his administration ignored a series of warning signs that the problem was getting considerably worse. Wait lists (not including the secret ones, presumably) stretched ever longer, even as VA funding increased dramatically. Does anyone have a high degree of confidence that lessons have been learned and that behavior will shift accordingly?