Controversial language undermining a key whistleblower’s claim that dozens of veterans may have died awaiting treatment at a VA hospital was added to an inspector general’s report at the behest of top officials at the Department of Veterans Affairs, internal emails show.
The language noted that the Phoenix VA doctor who made the claim failed to deliver the names of 40 patients who may have died while they were on phony appointment lists at the hospital.
Sloan Gibson, deputy VA secretary, personally discussed including the line that the 40 deaths were not confirmed with acting Inspector General Richard Griffin, according to the emails released by the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.
Both Gibson and Rob Nabors, deputy White House chief of staff, wanted some mention of whether the allegations raised by Dr. Sam Foote were confirmed, according to the emails.
Foote’s allegation that as many as 40 patients may have died awaiting care was publicly disclosed in April by Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House veterans’ committee. Miller ordered the IG to get to the bottom of the allegations that fake appointment logs were used to hide lengthy delays in care.
The IG ultimately confirmed that nearly 300 patients died awaiting treatment at the Phoenix hospital.
But the IG did not address whether the 40 deaths Foote mentioned were confirmed in the draft version of the report sent to Gibson on July 28. Gibson was acting VA secretary at the time.
Two days later, Karen Rasmussen, director of management review service at VA, sent an email to an official in the IG’s office seeking a statement on whether Foote’s initial allegations proved true.
“Mr. Rob Nabors and Acting Secretary Gibson anticipate questions about the list of 40 patients who died waiting for care at Phoenix that was initially provided by Dr. Foote, and announced by Chairman Miller during the HVAC Hearing in April,” Rasmussen said in her email to Gary Abe of the IG’s office.
“We’ve noticed the report doesn’t mention that particular list or how it was investigated by OIG,” Rasmussen wrote. “We’ve been asked to develop a response to this anticipated question and need your input on the matter. Perhaps you’ve already worked out a message you can share with us?”
Subsequent emails show Gibson and Griffin directly discussed the issue of whether the 40 deaths were confirmed.
“I was surprised to see no reference to the allegation of 40 deaths,” Gibson wrote in an email to Griffin on Aug. 4. “Normally, your reports clearly address whether an allegation was substantiated or not. What was the conclusion and is there a reason this very serious allegation doesn’t get directly addressed?”
Griffin replied later in the day, saying a reference to “the mysterious 40 deaths is being added to the draft.”
An hour later Gibson responded, “I appreciate the focus on the 40 deaths.”
Also during that Aug. 4 exchange, Griffin disclosed that the IG did not interview Sharon Helman, the former director of the Phoenix hospital who allegedly ordered the falsification of patient records.
“Helman has not been interviewed for a number of reasons,” Griffin said in his email to Gibson. “Best to describe orally.”
A VA spokeswoman issued a statement Monday saying the agency “does not and cannot dictate the final content of any reports to the independent entity that authors them.”
IG spokeswoman Catherine Gromek issued a statement saying the emails do not show Gibson had any influence over the final report.
Rather, they reflect the normal give and take that occurs when finalizing IG reports to ensure they are accurate and complete, she said.
The sentence was added because the figure of 40 patient deaths was widely reported in the media and needed to be addressed, Gromek said.
“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,” Gromek said in her email response.
Griffin declined to be interviewed.
Inspectors general are supposed to be independent agency watchdogs accountable to both Congress and the president.
Griffin is an acting IG, meaning the president has not nominated him for a permanent appointment to the post.
Gibson was acting VA secretary until the Senate confirmed Robert McDonald on July 29.
At a Sept. 17 House hearing, Griffin denied any major changes sought by the agency were made between the draft and final versions of the report on the Phoenix investigation.
The only changes made in response to requests from agency executives were minor and inconsequential, Griffin testified.
Foote said he tried to supply the names of patients who died while on phony waiting lists after he contacted the IG in October 2013. But the IG gave Foote a non-working fax number, then did not respond when he tried to contact investigators, he said.
Frustration with the IG’s inaction eventually drove Foote to the House veterans’ committee, he said.
Foote called the final IG report a “whitewash” and said Griffin was clearly trying to discredit him by inserting the line about the 40 patient deaths.
That language did not appear in the draft report sent to agency officials for comment, but it was in the final version.
Griffin backed off that language during the Sept. 17 House hearing, when he stated the delays may have contributed to patient deaths. He also insisted the line was added to the final report by a senior executive in the IG’s office, not by VA executives.
Griffin acknowledged that 293 veterans died while on various official and unofficial waiting lists at the Phoenix facility. That figure is not in the final report issued in August.
“Noting that we identified 293 deaths was not considered relevant when the report was written because it is not known whether the 293 deaths were more or less than the number of deaths expected for this population,” Griffin wrote in an Oct. 15 letter to Miller.
Miller blasted the apparent close relationship between Griffin and VA administrators, and called on President Obama to appoint a permanent inspector general who would be less likely to be influenced by agency pressure.
“There is a mountain of evidence related to this situation that in its best light presents the appearance of impropriety and in its worst light indicates a relationship between VA and its inspector general that is too close for comfort,” Miller told the Examiner late Sunday.
Miller said the emails show that top VA officials influenced specific aspects of the final report, and reveal Griffin’s “compliance” in the changes sought by Gibson and others.
“It certainly appears as if VA’s influence on the Phoenix report went well beyond mere facts and recommendations — something that should be of concern to all VA stakeholders,” Miller said.
Courtesy of The Washington Examiner