Reps. Walz, Emmer demand to know why St. Cloud VA report was shelved

Published 8:30 am Monday, September 7, 2015

MINNEAPOLIS — Minnesota congressmen are demanding to know why a 2013 investigation that found serious problems with the work environment at the St. Cloud Veterans Affairs Medical Center was quietly shelved.

The investigation validated complaints of a hostile work environment created by senior managers and problems for patients with canceled appointments because of insufficient staffing. But congressional committees that monitor the VA were never told that the report existed, and the report was never made publicly available.

Democratic Rep. Tim Walz, who sits on the House Veterans Affairs Committee, told the Star Tribune for a story published Sunday that he’s disturbed that the VA inspector general’s office, which is supposed to be an independent watchdog of an agency under increasing criticism, may be keeping important information from congressional or public scrutiny.

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GOP Rep. Tom Emmer, whose district includes the hospital, said he’s considering drafting legislation to require the VA to release all similar future inspector general reports.

“The thing I find absolutely unacceptable is when we have completed IG reports they basically enter into a black hole,” Walz said. “It’s just maddening to me that it feels like I am on some super sleuth mission to go find these things.”

The VA inspector general is responsible for investigating allegations of wrongdoing in the federal agency. But, as was the case in the St. Cloud investigation, it often farms out inquiries to local and regional VA officials and closes the case if it believes the problems have been addressed.

St. Cloud VA spokesman Barry Venable said that since the investigation was completed, they’ve hired more doctors, decreased patient loads, instituted supervisory training and conducted regular employee town halls to improve communication.

Walz said many of the report’s findings warranted further review from outside the VA. He has asked the inspector general’s office why the report was not made public and whether there’s a pattern of whistleblower suppression and retaliation within the agency.

A spokeswoman for the VA inspector general said the office was still formulating a response to Walz’s questions and would not comment until it was completed.

The St. Cloud investigation became public only after testimony from a whistleblower during a U.S. Senate hearing in July, even though it was conducted in 2013 and completed early in 2014. The witness, a doctor at a troubled Phoenix VA hospital, said she had obtained the St. Cloud report from a source.