Transparency Advocate Calls VA Secrecy A ‘National Embarrassment’

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Luke Rosiak Investigative Reporter
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Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) officials “egregiously” flouted transparency laws and failed to publish data that could show whether leaders’ claims of improvement are true, a watchdog group says.

President Barack Obama directed agencies in 2009 to become more open with the public by publishing data about operations online and creating a new transparency plan every two years. In the years since, the VA hasn’t bothered to make a plan of action, much less publish info like wait times at its hospitals.

Another Obama administration initiative created Hospital Share, a consumer website comparing the performance of all types of hospitals — nonprofit, for-profit and government-supported. But the VA, which is both government-run and the largest hospital network in the country, doesn’t submit data, even though the law requires it.

A new analysis from the Sunlight Foundation, a liberal-leaning nonprofit focused on government transparency, ripped the VA as one of the most secretive agencies in the nation. The strong language is atypical for the usually mild-mannered group.

“The absence of a new open government plan from the Department of Veterans Affairs over the past six years is not only an egregious flouting of President Barack Obama’s 2009 Open Government Directive, but a failure in governance that calls into question whether such plans accurately reflect the priorities and mission of agencies,” the Sunlight report said. “A blank website at hospitalcompare.va.gov is a national embarrassment. Of the 733 datasets from the VA on Data.gov, the five related to healthcare date back to 2009. That’s not good enough.”

The VA is the only cabinet agency that failed to do the two-year renewal of its open government plan every year it was due, including 2012, 2014 and 2016, according to a separate Sunlight analysis.

The White House’s Open Government Directive is focused on using spreadsheets and web applications to convey information. That type of information is particularly well-suited for scrutinizing the VA’s performance, since many of the most serious criticisms of the agency involve quantifiable things like delays in providing care.

Officials with the troubled department created an off-the-books scheduling system specifically so that they could continue to receive performance bonuses pegged to rosy — and false — statistics. Former Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki was forced to resign when the off-the-books system became public.

Instead of complying with the performance data reporting requirements of the law, VA leaders have focused on public relations efforts, massaging or cherry-picking statistics from internal databases to tout in news releases, or simply making generic positive “values” statements about the department that accurate information would likely contradicts.

Sunlight reports:

These failures are not an abstraction. When President Obama was asked about failures at the VA by a grief-stricken widow at the CNN Town Hall this week, he … told her that if suicidal veterans call a crisis prevention hotline, someone will be there to pick up.

In fact, Obama could not have known whether what he was saying was true, because:

Neither the agency nor the provider of the service was measuring service-level quality on an ongoing basis. That’s unacceptable.

Indeed, the limited data that exists suggests otherwise. Greg Hughes, who until recently managed the suicide hotline call center, said 35-45 percent of calls went unanswered and employees with poor work ethic answered as few as five calls a day.

The VA inspector general has calculated that 17 percent of calls to the hotline went unanswered. One vet killed himself after his call to the hotline went to voicemail; staff members reportedly didn’t know they had a voicemail system.

The conflict between positive abstract pronouncements from VA executives dozens of layers removed from daily operations and unsettling information from employees in-the-VA-weeds, could be resolved with real-time, public data that was connected directly to the hotline or appointment scheduling system and could not be altered by VA employees.

But the VA is unrepentant and unashamed of flaunting transparency rules, Sunlight said.

The trouble is that the agency itself is not only not taking sufficient proactive steps to disclose open data about the performance of its services and hospital, but also failing to hold itself publicly accountable for not doing so.

Sunlight wants VA to disclose data proactively; the alternative is Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. In interviews by The Daily Caller News Foundation with veterans, employees, activists and journalists, all said that FOIA requests they submitted to VA frequently went unanswered, contrary to the law.

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