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Inspection Report for Augusta VA Still Unreleased

The Department of Veterans Affairs Inspector Generals Office continues to withhold findings of health care violations at Augustas Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center, despite six months of calls from congressional leaders to tell the public about how potentially dangerous problems are being resolved.

Hospital officials and congressional leaders said the Augusta VA has provided the inspector general with plans to implement recommendations made in a comprehensive review last year into issues concerning administrative operations, management controls and quality of care.

Catherine Gromek, a spokeswoman for the inspector generals office, did not return e-mails asking why the report issued in October about the same time former hospital Director Robert Hamilton resigned has not been released and when it might be available.

The Augusta Chronicle requested the report March 9 under the Freedom of Information Act, but the office refused to provide the findings, saying the investigation remains ongoing and that the release of information may interfere with enforcement proceedings.

The newspaper appealed the decision, but David Traskey, an attorney and adviser to the inspector general, found the denial was appropriate for the same reasons.

VAs problems often go unsolved if they never see the light of day, which is why the IG needs to release this report, Rep. Jeff Miller, the Florida Republican who heads the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, said in a statement.

At the request of the House and Senate VA committees, the inspector generals office began investigating the Augusta VA to confirm claims that it had resolved appointment delays and brought in new management to overhaul its gastrointestinal program.

The clinic was in such disarray in 2011 that the hospital had to re-engineer the clinics floor plan and bring in extra personnel and equipment to handle 4,580 delayed endoscopies, which led to the deaths of three cancer patients and worsening conditions in four others.

Rep. Rick Allen, of Augusta, said last week during his first congressional visit to Fort Gordon that he has met with new hospital Director Maria Andrews and is monitoring the report.

Im in close contact with Rep. Jeff Miller and have given him every bit of information our office has received, Allen said. He has assured me we are doing all we can to get the VAs problems fixed. As soon as we get the report, we plan to make it public.

The House VA committee said in a March 16 hearing that the inspector generals justification for not providing information is rooted in a confusing interpretation of the law, which appears to be at odds with Congress constitutionally mandated oversight authority.

For example, the panel said that after revelations of secret inspector general reports that effectively kept serious problems at VA facilities in Phoenix, Ariz. and Tomah, Wis., hidden, the office has refused to share all of its reports, memoranda and other products with Congress.

Maureen Regan, a counselor to the inspector general, told the committee that the office has fully complied with applicable laws.

In the past six years, she said, the office has opened 690 cases based on requests from members of Congress. During that time, she said, the office has issued more than 1,700 reports, made 3,000 arrests, provided testimony at 67 congressional hearings, conducted 400 briefings to members of Congress and their staff and processed 1,860 Freedom of Information Act requests.

We have made every effort to be responsive and provide requested information without violating the law or waiving any applicable privilege based upon requests in any form from a committee member or staff, she said, according to a hearing transcript. However, we have a responsibility to comply with laws and regulations regarding the release of information and a right to request justification when responding to requests for non-public information maintained by the executive branch.

As required under federal law, Regan said, all inspector general reports are posted on the offices Web site within three days of being issued if the information is not protected under a confidentiality statute. If the report contains protected information, the title and a brief summary are posted.

When the office releases a report under the Freedom of Information Act, it is also accessible on the site.

Sen. Johnny Isakson, a member of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, said last week through a deputy press secretary that he respects the process and integrity of the (inspector generals) investigation and looks forward to a full briefing on its findings once that has concluded.

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