A year after the Veterans Affairs Department was rocked by findings of hidden patient wait lists and manipulated records, House Republicans are accusing the department's new leadership of doing little to fix the transparency problems.
In a rare evening hearing on Monday, conservatives on the House Veterans' Affairs Committee accused VA officials and investigators at the independent VA Inspector General's office of withholding information from Congress, evading elected officials' requests and obstructing lawmakers' efforts to uncover problems.
"It's uncertain whether VA understands the lessons in transparency it should have learned," said Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., committee chairman.
"The committee is not a junior partner with VA in any respect, and certainly not when it concerns our obligation to conduct oversight," Miller said.
VA officials countered that they are trying to provide information to Congress, but without violating patient privacy and often with little guidance or assistance from lawmakers themselves.
They also accused lawmakers of requesting information simply to leak embarrassing details to the media, rather than to try and solve the department's problems.
"Right now, we're communicating through letters," said Leigh Bradley, VA general counsel. "We need a healthy dialogue. … Right now, there is a lack of trust between us and the committee."
Committee Republicans said they have more than 100 pending requests for information from VA that are still unfulfilled, including 63 more than two months past due.
Bradley said more than 94 percent of congressional requests have been finished, a figure that Miller disputed.
And conservatives on the committee say VA and its inspector general have covered up numerous other documents that showed deep-seated problems in the department, including investigations into overprescription of pain medicines at a Wisconsin hospital and reasons for cost overruns for new hospital construction in Colorado.
The often prickly hearing took place seven months into the tenure of new VA Secretary Bob McDonald, who promised better relations with Congress and more openness in departmental affairs when he assumed office.
Since then, he and his staff have received mixed reviews, with lawmakers praising his rhetoric but questioning whether any fundamental cultural changes have occurred.
Meanwhile, Democrats on the committee questioned why Republicans shoehorned the transparency hearing into an evening session, implying the spectacle had more to do with politics than addressing VA's problems.
Several said they had no knowledge that the committee had requested much of the information Miller accused the department of withholding, and said the majority party needs to work on its own transparency before criticizing others.
Without acknowledging any specific mistakes, Bradley said VA is committed to providing better information sharing with Congress, and to advancing their oversight goals.
"But we need to be able to trust each other" when it comes to information requests about potentially sensitive records, she added.
That drew grumbles from Republicans on the committee, who said it's not for VA to decide how Congress can do it's work.
"I don't care if you trust me or not, that's not important," Miller said. "What's important is the Constitution."
By Leo Shane III
Published March 17, 2015