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Congress, VA engage in dispute over records

Related to Legionnaries exposure at Pittsburgh VA

Sep. 21, 2013 - 01:06PM   |  
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PITTSBURGH — In an unusual standoff, the Department of Veterans Affairs has failed for more than a year to answer requests for information from Republicans and Democrats in Congress, including emails relating to the death of at least five patients who were exposed to Legionnaires’ disease in the Pittsburgh VA system.

The House Committee on Veterans Affairs called a special hearing Thursday to grill a top VA official about the problem and even threatened to cut funding if the situation doesn’t improve.

“Frustration has been brewing for months,” said committee chairman Jeff Miller, a Florida Republican. A Democrat from a different part of the country agreed.

Committee members “are frustrated and unhappy” with the VA’s handling of requests for records, said Rep. Mike Michaud, a Maine Democrat.

It’s not a typical Washington political spat, said Elaine Kamarck, an expert at the Brookings Institution think tank and former White House staff member during the Clinton administration.

“The fact that the requests have been bipartisan does raise a flag. It does make you wonder what’s going on at VA,” said Kamarck, adding that “in a town where there is partisan polarization over just about anything, when both parties are critical of something, you know there’s cause for concern.”

According to committee members who spoke at the Thursday hearing, the VA is foot-dragging on more than 70 requests for information, some of which relate to investigations into preventable veteran deaths and delays in care at VA medical facilities around the country.

“We can, we must and we will do better,” replied Joan M. Mooney, the VA assistant secretary for congressional and legislative affairs.

Mooney said that her Washington office has responded to tens of thousands of congressional requests for information since the 2009 fiscal year, but Miller noted that the office has been given a 40 percent increase in staff, too.

“If things don’t improve materially, this committee will have no choice but to reconsider the funding your office receives,” Miller said.

In response to questions from The Associated Press, the VA provided a copy of Mooney’s testimony to the committee and said in a statement that it provides “an incredible volume of information to Congress on a daily basis.”

The standoff is highly unusual, partly because the committee “is the hand that feeds” the VA, since the Constitution gives Congress the responsibility for oversight of federal agencies, said Pat Dunham, a professor of political science at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.

Congressman Tim Murphy, a Republican who represents a Pittsburgh-area district, said in a statement that “to date, the VA has not been cooperative. On behalf of the families who lost loved ones, the VA must be more forthcoming, and demonstrate a sustained commitment to fulfilling their obligations to congressional investigations.”

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