OSC piles on to mounting criticism of VA OIG

As the Veterans Affairs Department’s Office of Inspector General faces repeated and mounting assessments from leaders within its own agency, the IG can add another critic to the list.

The Office of Special Counsel said the VA IG did not respond to the issues two whistleblowers raised, meaning the reports it released on scheduling problems at the Hines VA Hospital in Chicago and the Overton Brooks VA Medical Center in Shreveport, Louisiana, are incomplete.

“The OIG investigations found evidence to support the whistleblowers’ allegations that employees were using separate spreadsheets outside of the VA’s electronic scheduling and patient records systems,” OSC Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner wrote in a Feb. 25 letter to President Barack Obama. “However, the OIG largely limited its review to determining whether these separate spreadsheets were ‘secret.'”

In the Hines case, the IG investigation confirmed that a senior manager told scheduling assistants to manipulate scheduling data to hide veterans’ actual wait times, Lerner said. But the report does not analyze how that information impacted veterans’ experiences.

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“It later undermines its own limited findings by stating that the manager’s improper directions to schedulers were ‘arguably practical,'” she wrote.

The Overton Brooks report finds that the Mental Health Clinic created a spreadsheet with 2,700 veterans who needed a mental health provider assignment. But the IG’s investigation focused only on whether that spreadsheet was “secret,” Lerner said, and the OIG didn’t look into the root causes that may have prompted the clinic to create the list in the first place.

The VA’s Office of Accountability Review said the IG reports “thoroughly” and “fully” addressed the whistleblowers’ concerns, which Lerner also found worrisome.

“The focus and tone of the OIG investigations appear to be intended to discredit the whistleblowers by focusing on the word ‘secret,’ rather than reviewing the access to care issues identified by the whistleblowers and in the OSC referrals,” Lerner said.

The IG denied OSC’s request to look at the full inspector general reports, which Lerner said prevents her agency from determining whether the VA is resolving these problems.

The VA OIG on Feb. 29 rolled out the first 11 of 77 administrative reports on patient wait times at the agency’s medical centers across the country.

But VA insists that many of these reports are based off Access Audit findings from early 2014, and if the IG evaluated today’s administrative data, its reports would look quite different.

“The report summaries released today will present new information to many veterans and other stakeholders,” the VA said in a statement. “In response to these concerns, accountability actions have already been taken where appropriate, and additional training and efforts to increase access to care have been underway since 2014 when these issues were discovered.”

The VA said it appreciates the IG’s work, and in some cases, the department developed new leadership training or punished employees involved in misconduct based on the OIG’s investigations.

But the department is noticeably frustrated.

“The pattern of releasing results of investigations nearly two years after the fact is not only unhelpful, it creates the false belief among many that these problems still exist and discourages veterans from coming to VA for the care and support they need,” the VA said.

VA’s argument isn’t new. Deputy VA Secretary Sloan Gibson has been particularly vocal on the topic.

“Right now, I am quite frustrated with the IG, because the IG continued to produce reports that are based on information that’s a year old, that’s 18 months old, that’s 2 years old,” he said Feb. 22.

He pointed to a recent IG report on the agency’s suicide hotline program, which used information from 2014 to inform its findings. Operations at the Veterans Crisis Line today do not resemble what the IG described, Gibson said during a call with reporters Feb. 26.

In December, Gibson expressed his frustration before Congress with the lengthy time the IG took to complete disciplinary reviews. In response, Gibson said his office would conduct its own investigations, separate from the inspector general.

The VA has repeatedly called for the Senate to confirm Michael Missal, the agency’s pick to be its permanent inspector general. The VA has been without a permanent IG since December 2013.

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