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VA challenges charge it influenced inspector general’s Phoenix report

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WASHINGTON – Administrators and auditors at the Department of Veterans Affairs defended themselves Monday against charges that they coordinated changes to an inspector general’s report on deaths of veterans at the VA’s Phoenix facilities.

The charges came Friday after the release of emails between acting Secretary Sloan Gibson and acting Inspector General Richard Griffin, in which Gibson asked why Griffin’s report did not directly address claims that 40 vets had died as a result of delays in care.

Critics said the emails are evidence of the VA’s influence on the supposedly independent inspector general’s office and should be a major concern to anyone involved with the department.

But department officials said those claims are overblown. If anything, they said, the emails show the process is working.

“Rather than ascribe dubious motives to revisions to the draft report, we believe that the revisions demonstrate a commitment to explaining what happened in Phoenix in the clearest possible way,” a spokeswoman for the IG said in a prepared statement Monday.

Department officials echoed that statement, with a spokeswoman there saying the agency “does not and cannot dictate the final content of any reports to the independent entity that authors them.”

The dispute centers on the inspector general’s report on wait-list manipulations at the Phoenix VA hospital. That report came in the wake of allegations by Dr. Samuel Foote, a retired VA physician who said manipulation of patient-scheduling resulted in the deaths of 40 veterans in the Valley.

News reports on Foote’s charges in February sparked congressional hearings and audits of VA hospitals nationwide, and led to the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki in May.

On July 28, Shinseki’s interim replacement, Gibson, was sent a draft of Griffin’s report investigating long wait-times at the Phoenix VA hospital. This was standard procedure, according to officials in Griffin’s office, and Gibson responded to the 170-page draft with five comments.

“I was surprised to see no reference to the allegation of 40 deaths,” Gibson began. “Is there a reason this very serious allegation doesn’t get directly addressed?”

After Gibson’s email, the final draft of the report included two paragraphs in the first page of the report citing the reported Phoenix deaths.

“A whistleblower alleged that 40 veterans died waiting for appointments,” the report says. “We pursued this allegation, but the whistleblower did not provide us with a list of 40 patient names.”

The OIG spokeswoman on Monday cited multiple instances prior to Gibson’s Aug. 4 email in which the discussion of whether or not to address the 40 deaths was brought up. She referenced an email that was not among those released Friday, in which Griffin rejected the VA’s proposal on how to address the issue.

The decision was made to address Foote’s allegation, she said, because “the persistent references in the media and among members of Congress warranted inclusion.”

But Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said in a statement that the emails show a “relationship between VA and its inspector general that is too close for comfort.”

“As new revelations about the report’s evolution have emerged, the OIG has attempted to characterize them as routine parts of the deliberative process it uses to produce reports,” said Miller, the chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs and one of the VA’s biggest critics. “If that’s the case, I would argue that this process is inherently flawed.”

Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Phoenix, agreed that the emails raise “serious questions about the independence and integrity” of the VA inspector general. Sinema wrote the IG in October requesting that all unpublished documents in relation to the Phoenix VA be released.

But administration officials insisted that there was nothing improper in the email communications and that they are working in the best interest of veterans.

“New VA leadership was determined to address the wait times issue once and for all,” the OIG official said. “Given the gravity of the situation, one can expect no less.”