Sen. Ernst Calls Attention to Vacant VA IG Position, Failure to Provide an Update on Central Iowa’s VA Health Care
Jun 03 2015
"I do have the responsibility to ensure that those veterans are receiving adequate care, and we’re living up to the promises we have made to these veterans as a nation…
… 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.”
WASHINGTON, D.C. – During today’s Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs hearing entitled “Watchdogs Needed: Top Government Investigator Positions Left Unfilled for Years”, U.S. Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA) highlighted the critical need for a permanent VA Inspector General.
At the hearing, Senator Ernst expressed her disappointment that she has yet to receive an update from the Veterans Affairs Inspector General’s office which said months ago that they initiated a review of the mental health care provided to Richard Miles, an Army and Iraq War veteran who committed suicide in Des Moines, Iowa.
Senator Ernst emphasized in the hearing that “the Office of the VA IG has told me on multiple occasions that they would get the report to me. Again, I requested this report in February, it is now June… so it is very frustrating and absolutely unacceptable that it has taken so long.”
The Senator questioned Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz, Chair of the Inspectors General on Integrity, Project on Government Oversight Executive Director Danielle Brian, and Cause of Action Executive Director Daniel Epstein on the current status of candidates for the VA IG and reasons for delay.
In March, Senator Ernst and a number of her colleagues sent a letter calling on President Obama to take action to address the vacancies of permanent Inspectors General (IGs) in the federal government. This letter has also gone unanswered by the administration.
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SENATOR ERNST: Thank you Mr. Chair I do appreciate you holding this important hearing. This has been an issue ongoing for quite a while now and before I do get to my questions, I just would like to make a few remarks as to this issue. This is very important to me and particularly with the avenue that I am going to take, particularly to our veterans.
I have been concerned our veterans are not receiving the highest quality of mental health care at many VA facilities. And tragically in February, Iraq and Army veteran, Richard Miles, of Des Moines, Iowa, committed suicide.
I was deeply troubled by reports from his family, friends, and both local and national media outlets which claimed that Richard may have not have received adequate mental health care from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
And that led me to ask the Inspector General to look into Central Iowa VA’s mental health care programs, the care Richard received for his PTSD, and their management of his particular case.
That was in February. It is now June.
And this has been so deeply troubling to me. I would note that the Office of the VA IG has told me on multiple occasions that they would get the report to me. Again, I requested this report in February, it is now June. They told me they would have the results to me first in April, and after receiving no response, we reached out again. And then they said, “We’ll have it to you in May.” We reached out again at the beginning of this week, still have not received an answer.
So it is very frustrating and absolutely unacceptable that it has taken so long. We have many veterans that seek assistance with our VA systems, whether it is for mental health care or other types of care. Especially with our mental health care, we need to ensure that they’re receiving timely and adequate care. And in this case, I have no idea whether that happened or not because we have not gotten a response.
As a Senator, I do have the responsibility to ensure that those veterans are receiving adequate care, and we’re living up to the promises we have made to these veterans as a nation. So the VA and its IG need to come forward with information that will provide Iowa veterans a better understanding of the adequacy and management of their mental health care and those programs.
So while I am in a position right now that I can no longer do anything for Richard, I am in a position where I can do something for many of our other veterans that are seeking mental health care to help with these invisible wounds. And this could be of any era of veteran. 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.
And thank you for listening to that. But with that I would like though to ask a couple of questions.
Mr. Horowitz, you wrote in your testimony that “One of the Council of IGs most important responsibilities, is to submit recommendations of individuals to the appropriate appointing authority.” Would you recommend Mr. Griffin to be the IG for the VA? Have you had any discussion with the White House on a formal nomination process for the VA IG spot?
MR. HOROWITZ: I have had conversations, and my understanding is the chair of the panel and the panel itself that we’ve set up has also had discussions in the sense of recommending candidates for the position. When I say discussions, and it’s usually one way discussions, it’s usually us recommending candidates to them.
SENATOR ERNST: And have you seen any responses particularly with Mr. Griffin? Is he a candidate for the position? Would he be?
MR. HOROWITZ: I do not know if he is a candidate and I have not gotten feedback on where things are as to the candidates we’ve recommended.
SENATOR ERNST: Okay, and there in lies some of the problems I think, you know, maybe recommendations are made, but they’re not acted on. That I’m not sure of, I just know that the VA needs an IG, and somebody that will be responsive to these types of situations. And also, Mr. Horowitz, and of course Ms. Brian and Mr. Epstein, last year, Former White House Deputy Chief of Staff, now the VA Chief of Staff, Rob Nabors, said the VA was “crippled by a corrosive culture” and “poor leadership” which negatively impacts the delivery of care at VA. And considering this White House report, VA scandals with systemic wait-time falsification, well we could go on and on. And it’s on the GAO’s High-Risk List, in your opinion, why hasn’t the White House prioritized nominating and getting through the Senate a full-time IG? Are there areas we need to consider?
MS. BRIAN: I just can’t speak to why they haven’t prioritized it, it seems so obvious to me that it should be a priority, and I would – in my written testimony I gave some examples of how we’ve had our own experiences, very negative experiences, with the acting IG, so I would hope they find someone else to fill that position.
SENATOR ERNST: Thank you.
MR. EPSTEIN: I can’t speak specifically about the President’s state of mind, but I think there are two things that might shed some light on some of those questions you asked, the first is, and I’d be happy to kind of submit an additional statement on this – the President I believe under the Vacancies Act could, he has done so with the National Labor Relations Board, he could put an IG into a position which wouldn’t have to be past that 210 day timeline, and that couldn’t, wouldn’t have to be a deputy. So I think the President has, is ready, willing and able, well maybe not willing, but has the ability to put someone there. And so it’s a question of the pressure to do that, why do you do that for certain boards that may be politically beneficial, but you don’t do that when it comes to Inspector Generals? Another thing is a lot of what has been discussed; the fact that there would be delays in appointments through that vetting process. But as part of that vetting process, whether it’s the Office of the Presidential Personnel or the President’s Council, get background checks from the FBI. So one thing that, if my organization tried to do this, we would be stonewalled. But hopefully the Senate wouldn’t be, is the Senate could request information whether the records are kept confidential but the number of records aren’t of how many background checks are done for potential nominees through the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. How many background checks were done for potential nominees to the Export-Import Bank. Then you can determine, how, in fact, willing was the President to consider nominations. If you can’t get the facts from CIGIE, you can get information concerning how many potential nominees were actually considered, and that could give some kind of sunlight to, whether the President took seriously the need to actually put a permanent Inspector General to prevent a lot of these problems that you discussed at Veterans Affairs.
SENATOR ERNST: Thank you and thank you Mr. Chair. And I would say that of all the vacant IG positions, this one literally has lives riding on it. Thank you.
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