House Veterans’ Affairs Committee chairman Rep. Jeff Miller is tired of the Department of Veterans Affairs stonewalling requests for more information on its scandal-racked regional office in Philadelphia.
With unanimous support, the committee issued a subpoena last Thursday to dig deeper into revelations released last month by the inspector general that the Philadelphia office regularly ignores veterans and incorrectly handles benefits claims. Over 31,000 inquiries went unanswered for an average of 312 days, despite the fact that regulations mandate an answer within five days. Investigators also found unattended date-stamping machines, making it easy for any employee to manipulate wait times undetected.
At least one employee modified benefit forms. Managers knew and did nothing.
It’s still unclear whether any employees will face punishment, as the VA’s internal review will not close until the end of June.
VA secretary Robert McDonald was quick to respond to the latest subpoena request with a letter, saying that the information requested “is not necessary for the Committee’s oversight needs.” Moreover, McDonald stated that the subpoena is confusing because had the committee agreed to basic privacy standards, it would have received all the relevant files by now.
When McDonald took over as secretary from Eric Shinseki last year, Congress was hopeful that the department might turn over a new leaf. Nearly a year later, patience from lawmakers, including 2016 GOP presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio, is running thin.
On Friday, Miller fired a response back to McDonald.
“I remind you that neither you nor VA has the constitutional or legal authority to substitute your judgment for what this Committee needs or does not need to conduct an investigation within its jurisdiction,” Miller wrote. While McDonald said he provided 9,000 pages to the committee, numerous pages were completely redacted, “leading any reasonable person to presume that there is something to hide, and not that VA is making an attempt to protect legitimate privacy interests.”
The reason HVAC is so intent on receiving documents is because the VA has a history of providing false and misleading statements to the public.
In one particular example, Miller noted that it simply is not true that the VA has fired 60 people for manipulating wait times, as has been stated previously. Instead, the real number is actually zero.
The back-and-forth dispute is yet another example of the difficulty that HVAC has faced in reining in the VA.
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