WASHINGTON - Politicians from both sides of the aisle are talking about the Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General: the office responsible for overseeing our VA system. And, the conversation is exposing more underlying issues at the VA.
Lawmakers say now is the time for the Veterans Affairs Administration to step up - before it’s too late.
“VA needs to do a better job,” said Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL).
Miller is the Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs. Inside his hearing room, he was asked about the so-called “culture of fear” at the Tomah VA.
“I know there is a culture of fear around the Department of Veteran's Affairs and that's one thing Secretary McDonald is trying to change,” Miller said. “This culture of hospital directors setting up their own fiefdoms and then punishing people who don't agree with them, or become whistle-blowers - you shouldn't lead out of fear.”
Miller wants better access to secret VA Inspector General reports. After putting pressure on the VA IG, he said the office finally started to release some of those reports on their website and to lawmakers. But things still aren’t completely transparent, and practices at the VA need to change.
“It is amazing to me how hard it is to fire somebody in the federal work system,” Miller said.
When looking into the over-prescription of opiate drugs at the VA medical center in Tomah, Wisconsin, Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) told me the VA Inspector General's office misled her.
“The IG closed the case, said that personnel and other policy changes were being made to address concerns, and also found that the allegations of wrongdoing or negligence were unsubstantiated,” said Baldwin.
When I sat down with Baldwin’s Wisconsin colleague, Sen. Ron Johnson (D-WI), he wasn’t shy; he said there are more dangerous problems underneath the surface at VA hospitals across the country.
“When you have an office of the IG that I do not believe has been fully transparent, has exhibited independence that I think an IG office should be exhibiting, my guess is there's going to be bigger problems,” Johnson said.
We reached out to the VA Office of Inspector General to try to understand why so many of their reports have remained secret, and why lawmakers feel the office has been covering up problems at the VA. So far, the VA IG has not granted any request for an interview. A Congressional field hearing was held in Tomah, Wisconsin earlier this week. Lawmakers tell us that’s another step in their ongoing investigation into the VA. An investigation they pledge won't end until VA hospitals are safe for our veterans.