By Heath Druzin
At a heated Congressional hearing Wednesday, two doctors said patient deaths can be linked to delays in care at VA medical centers, a starkly different view than the one painted by an increasingly controversial inspector general's report.
Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., took a hard line in his questioning of acting VA Inspector General Richard Griffin, expressing skepticism about whether the IG was unduly influenced by VA officials.
At one point Miller banged his gavel to stop Griffin from speaking.
"You want the truth?" Griffin shot back.
"You are out of order," Miller said.
The VA health-care scandal took its latest troubling turn Wednesday at a hearing of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, where two VA whistleblowers sat next to Griffin as they picked apart his office's report, which found no link between delayed care and patient deaths.
"As a physician reading this report, I disagree," Katherine Mitchell, medical director of the Phoenix VA Health Care System's Iraq and Afghanistan Post-Deployment Center, said in her testimony.
In submitted written testimony, Mitchell went further: "I believe the OIG case review overlooked actual and potential causal relationships between health care delays and veteran deaths."
Mitchell was joined by retired Phoenix VA doctor Samuel Foote, the whistleblower who helped expose the scandal that led to the resignation of former VA secretary Eric Shinseki and calls for massive reforms and the firing of officials.
At the hearing, Foote said the VA IG's office used a report on care at VA hospitals as damage control, rather than using it to get to the bottom of major deficiencies in the system. Calling the IG report a "whitewash," Foote said patient deaths could be linked to delays in care.
"I would like to use this statement to comment on what I view as the foot-dragging, downplaying and frankly, inadequacy of the Inspector General's Office," Foote said, saying the report was "designed to minimize the scandal and protect perpetrators."
The IG investigation found substantial problems in the VA health care system and "ethical lapses" among VA's senior leadership, but stopped short of linking patient deaths to delays in care.
"It's very difficult to know how someone died," Dr. John Daigh, an assistant inspector general who helped draft the report, said in defending his findings. "I'm not clairvoyant."
One issue driving skepticism about the IG report is changes made between a draft version that was leaked early and the final report.
Griffin vigorously defended his office's handling of the investigation, and rejected charges that VA officials influenced his report and pointed out that he refused a request from VA officials that he omit several patient cases from the report.
"We are scrupulous about our independence and take pride in the performance of our mission," he said.
Even the normally affable new Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Bob McDonald, got testy when asked by Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., whether he will investigate leaks, such as the early release of the IG report.
"The three hours I spend waiting to testify is three hours is time I'm not spending working on veterans issues," McDonald said.
In recent months Foote and current and former VA employees have brought to light a system where patients languished for months without care, some waiting for potentially life-saving procedures, and where appearances were put above medical care.
In response to the revelations, Congress passed a $17-billion bill enabling the VA to hire more doctors and nurses and making it easier to fire underperforming officials.
The Phoenix system has become a poster child for VA dysfunction, with officials accused of manipulating data to cover up long wait times in order to receive higher bonuses.
The committee has also requested testimony from Sharon Helman, the director of the Phoenix VA Health Care System, who has taken heavy criticism for her role in the scandal, but she did not appear at the hearing.
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