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VA knew of problems in Phoenix years earlier than previously thought

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WASHINGTON – Lawmakers reacted angrily this week to reports that the Department of Veterans Affairs may have known about problems at its Phoenix health care facilities years before they came to light this spring.

A 2008 report by the VA Office of Inspector General found that workers in Phoenix were manipulating records to improve their own performance reviews and to make it appear as if veterans had shorter wait-times for care.

That was echoed in a 2010 internal memo that said VA employees were “gaming the system” to make wait times appear shorter.

Those same practices were revealed this spring, when whistleblowers charged that delays in health care may have led to the deaths of some veterans. Those disclosures sparked a series of angry hearings in Congress, which passed a multibillion-dollar reform bill this summer.

VA officials said Thursday that the earlier reports addressed problems as they were identified and it should have been “no secret” to Congress.

But lawmakers didn’t see it that way.

“Anyone who concealed these findings should be immediately fired,” said Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Flagstaff, in a written statement late Wednesday.

Kirkpatrick, a member of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, called the VA’s handling of wait times “government at its worst.”

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., said Thursday that he found the existence of earlier reports “disturbing.” Those reports “further highlight the need for fundamental reform, new leadership and full accountability at the Phoenix VA,” he said in a prepared statement.

Problems uncovered at the Phoenix VA earlier this year started a national examination of the department that found widespread problems and led to the resignation in May of then-Secretary Eric Shinseki.

An August inspector general’s report on the Phoenix facility cited cases of wait-time manipulation at 20 other facilities around the country. It included links to the full reports on those other cases, dating as far back as 2005, and also linked to a 2011 report on mismanaged non-VA care funds in Phoenix.

But the August report included no such link to the 2008 report on Phoenix wait-times. That earlier report received only a two-sentence reference that said it “was an accepted past practice at the medical center to alter appointments to avoid wait times greater than 30 days and that some employees still continued that practice.”

OIG officials said Thursday that the 2008 report had not previously been released because it contained information protected by the Privacy Act, which protects personal information recorded by federal agencies.

It is standard for privacy-protected documents to be made available to congressional committees upon request, OIG’s statement said. The 2008 report was not released until this month because it was “the first time a request was made that included this memorandum.”

That did not sit well with Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., who said in a statement Thursday that the VA “refused to make it (the 2008 report) public, effectively keeping the problems hidden.”

Miller, who chairs the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, added that the VA’s history of releasing misleading information meant the IG should “treat the department with much more scrutiny.”

Miller’s committee led the charge for VA reform this spring and summer, when Congress passed the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014. Besides appropriating $17 billion for VA reform, the bill gave the VA secretary greater leeway in firing poorly performing managers, among other changes.

Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Phoenix, in a letter Wednesday to VA Inspector General Richard Griffin, asked that all unpublished reports from the past 10 years be made public.

“The failure to publicly release this information raises serious questions about the integrity and independence of the VAOIG,” she said about the 2008 report. “This pattern cannot continue.”