Deputy VA Secretary Sloan Gibson asked the Inspector General investigating the Phoenix VA scandal to adjust findings in his final report. This resulted in the addition of a highly quoted claim that there was no conclusive evidence wait times had resulted in any deaths. The VA then leaked this finding to the media and used it to downplay claims made by a whistleblower.
The timeline of interactions between the VA and the Inspector General shows a gradual increase in pressure and specificity. The IG sent a draft of its report to the VA on July 28th. Two days later the IG got a response from the VA saying that White House Deputy Chief of Staff Rob Nabors and Acting VA Sec. Sloan Gibson were expecting questions from the media about the 40 deaths mentioned in the media. The VA asks the IG to offer input on how to respond to this question. “Perhaps you’ve already worked out a message you can share with us?” the email suggests.
John Daigh from the IG’s office responds with a proposed statement about 3400 patients potentially harmed by wait-list delays but he gets no response. The next day, July 31st, Daigh sends a follow up email asking, “Was the message on the deaths well received by leadership?” No response to his email was released by the House Committee but it appears the answer to his question was no.
On August 4th, Deputy VA Secretary Sloan Gibson sends an email directly to Acting Inspector General Richard Griffin (he addresses him as “Griff”). The email states, “I wanted to share a couple of thoughts/questions on the Phoenix report now that you are back in the office.” This is followed by a list of concerns, the first of which reads:
“I was surprised to see no reference to the allegation of 40 deaths. Normally your reports clearly address whether an allegation was substantiated or not. What was the conclusion and is there a reason this very serious allegation doesn’t get directly addressed.”
IG Griffin responded saying, “As I mentioned, the mysterious “40 deaths” is being added to the draft. We will forward updated language soon.” The updated language said that while VA was aware of 40 patients who died while on wait lists, they could not “conclusively assert” that the deaths were connected to the waiting.
This language was so helpful to the VA that they couldn’t even wait for the report to be released. Instead the exculpatory conclusion was leaked by the VA. The Navy Times headlined their story, “No proof deaths caused by delay in VA care, IG says.”
When the report was released, Dr. Foote, the initial whistleblower, called it a whitewash at best. “At its worst, it is a feeble attempt at a cover-up. The report
deliberately uses confusing language and math, invents new unrealistic
standards of proof … and makes misleading statements,” Foote told the House Veterans Affairs Committee.
During a hearing in September, Republicans on the Veterans Affairs Committee alleged that the change in the report had been prompted by the VA. Acting IG Griffin denied this saying, “Neither the language nor the concept was suggested by anyone at VA to any of my people.”
In the following exchange, Sen. Dean Heller asks IG Griffin, “Did the VA play any role in the inclusion of this line?” Griffin replies, “No.” (Video clip courtesy of the Washington Examiner.)
Rep. Jeff Miller, Chairman, House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs issued a statement about the changes prompted by the VA. “VA selectively leaked to the press the very elements of the report it had successfully lobbied to change. And at our Sept. 17 hearing, OIG officials confirmed that delays in VA medical care contributed to the deaths of Phoenix-area veterans and admitted that they couldn’t rule out the possibility that delays in VA care caused deaths – crucial facts that are nowhere to be found in the report.”
After the release of the emails, Concerned Veterans for America’s CEO Pete Hesgeth released a statement calling for the removal of IG Griffin and the resignation of Deputy Sec. Gibson. “We will continue to demand accountability at the VA and demand that
Congress, the White House, and the VA act to remove Richard Griffin from
office, that Sloan Gibson resigns his position, and that a special
prosecutor is appointed to investigate the politicization of inspector
general investigations at the VA.”