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Ernst Presses VA Inspector General and Special Counsel Nominees on Commitment to Oversight and Accountability

WASHINGTON, D.C. – At a Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee hearing, U.S. Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA) pressed the nominee for the Inspector General (IG) of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), Mr. Michael J. Missal, along with the nominee for Special Counsel of the Office of Special Counsel, the Honorable Carolyn N. Lerner, emphasizing the critical importance of timely oversight, accountability, and protection of whistleblowers within the VA.

Senator Ernst stressed “as we have seen all too many times in the past that there has not been the follow-up necessary, and those months delay could mean another veteran that has been left untreated or another veteran that takes their own life because of the lack of care provided by the VA. So we do have to be vigilant in this oversight and it quite literally is a matter of life and death.”

Last June during a Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing, the Iowa Senator called attention to the prolonged vacancy of the VA Inspector General position and its impact, "I do have the responsibility to ensure that those veterans are receiving adequate care… but the only way we can do this is to have efficient and motivated IGs and especially one in the VA that can be held accountable.”

In addition, Senator Ernst joined a bipartisan group of Senators in sending multiple letters to President Obama calling on him to immediately nominate a permanent VA IG, amid ongoing reports of mismanagement at the department.

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SEN. ERNST: Thank you very much, it is so nice to have you both in front of us today. Thank you, Mr. Chairman, for calling for this nomination process. I want to thank your families as well for joining you today. It takes a lot to put that on their shoulders as well. And for those that came from the OSC, we want to thank you for your very important work. You can tell this is not the Veterans Committee, but you can tell that the members of this committee are very, very passionate about the care that not only our veterans are provided through the VA healthcare system, but also those that see issues within that VA healthcare system, and protecting those whistleblowers and making sure that they are afforded the opportunity to speak out without reprisal. So, thank you again for the work that you are doing. Mr. Missal, it is good to see you again. I appreciate you taking the time before the holidays to sit down with me and my staff and talk through a number of these issues. Again, very passionate about the care that we provide to our veterans. It was actually last March when all of the members of this committee joined together in a letter to the President asking for a nominee to this position of Inspector General for the VA. So, we do need to act swiftly on this. I am very excited about this opportunity, and I, like a number of our other members--Chairman Johnson, you have had frustrations with the VA, Senator Baldwin—all of us have had specific frustrations with our own VA healthcare centers. Last February, I requested a review of the mental health care provided to an Iraq War veteran from the Des Moines area, a young man that committed suicide, and the VA IG’s office did not report back to me for many, many months. And again, this was a very serious situation. Again, a young man had taken his own life out of the frustration that he felt, and now the frustration that we all bear. So, again, it was months before they got back to my office, and my state staff has also reported to me that the VA OIG has failed to respond to their repeated, repeated request for an update on three cases. Now, three additional cases in Iowa that were opened last spring. So, this is not a one-time occurrence for any of us--repeated requests for information on cases that are going unanswered. And, can you please just repeat to me your commitment to all of us on this committee that you will assist us in our oversight responsibilities in a timely manner and keep us effectively informed on all OIG matters?

MR. MISSAL: Senator, I recognize the important role an IG can play in assisting the committee and Congress in its oversight responsibility. I think you’ll find me highly communicative, that I would respond very quickly to requests. I may not always have the answer right away, it sometimes takes time to develop it, but I just believe it’s important to keep people informed of the progress so you know exactly what is going on.

SEN. ERNST: That is wonderful, I appreciate that very much because, unfortunately, as we have seen all too many times in the past that there has not been the follow-up necessary, and those months delay could mean another veteran that has been left untreated or another veteran that takes their own life because of the lack of care provided by the VA, so we do have to be vigilant in this oversight and it quite literally is a matter of life and death. So, I just want to make sure that we all understand how important it is for timely response. I was a little appalled to learn during this committee’s hearing last September that the VA OIG investigates only a fraction of the approximately forty thousand complaints—forty thousand—that it gets annually, and I understand that both the VA OIG and the OSC are resource-constrained, but a top priority of both organizations should be ensuring that not one of these VA whistleblower complaints goes unresolved. And, so I would like to hear maybe your just very brief, your general thoughts on that.

MR. MISSAL: Sure, I understand there are forty thousand contacts to the hotline a year, give or take there. I don’t know what they’re doing to triage those, how they decide which ones should rest, which ones are not. But that’s, again, one thing that I find very important. If there’s an issue out there that needs to be addressed, it needs to be addressed quickly, and figure out a way to find resources to at least initially address them and see what can be done.

SEN. ERNST: Thank you. Ms. Lerner, just very briefly.

HON. LERNER: Sure, let me tell you just briefly some of the steps that OSC has taken to prioritize VA cases. We have set up a triage system that prioritizes VA health and safety cases. So, any case involving health and safety, whether it’s a disclosure, or someone who claims retaliation for having reported a health and safety violation, those get a very quick look. We have a senior counsel who is assigned full-time to coordinate our VA cases. I have assigned one of my deputies to coordinate VA cases. They meet weekly with the VA team of employees at OSC that we created after we got this total influx of new cases. That team meets weekly. We have worked with the VA Office of General Counsel and Office of Accountability and Review to expedite the resolution of VA retaliation cases so that we can get quicker, better results without having to do a full investigation. So those are just some of the things that we are doing to prioritize VA cases at the OSC.

SEN. ERNST: I appreciate it very much.