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Lawmakers to VA: Stop stonewalling us

Sep. 19, 2013 - 03:53PM   |  
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A key House committee is accusing the Veterans Affairs Department of interfering with congressional investigations, oversight and legislation by refusing to provide timely answers to questions or meet deadlines for providing views on pending bills.

On the hot seat is Joan Mooney, VA’s assistant secretary for congressional and legislative affairs, whose job includes responding to lawmakers. A former congressional staffer who says she understands the important role Congress plays in veterans’ issues, Mooney appeared Thursday before the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee to face complaints from Republicans and Democrats about a lack of timely communication.

One committee member, Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., accused Mooney of being the mastermind of a systematic political cover-up to hide Obama administration policies and programs that are hurting veterans.

Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., the committee chairman, said he does not know who is to blame but he holds Mooney accountable. “It is your job,” he said.

“We can and will do better,” Mooney pledged.

The Veterans’ Affairs Committee has 70 sets of unanswered questions pending before VA, Miller said, some more than a year old. They include questions related to preventable patient deaths in an outbreak of Legionnaire’s disease at VA’s Pittsburgh medical center.

“Given that five veterans are dead a result of the outbreak, which VA’s own inspector general attributed to VA mismanagement, the committee is engaged in an investigation into this matter to determine what went wrong and ensure it never happens again,” Miller said. “Unfortunately, we have not seen a similar sense of urgency from VA to help us with our investigative efforts.”

Rep. Michael Michaud of Maine, the committee’s ranking Democrat, was a bit more charitable. “While I am frustrated with the way things have been, I am confident we can improve this critical relationship,” he said.

Mooney is responsible for congressional relations, but she does not prepare the responses or congressional testimony. Still, she appeared before the committee to take the heat for delays and to promise to do better. Sometimes badgered by lawmakers, she blamed the delays on the need for accurate answers to often extremely detailed questions, as well as the need to coordinate answers.

“Accuracy in the information we provide to Congress is a top goal, and so while we have and continue to provide a significant volume of information to Congress, quality is just as important as quantity,” she said.

Some lawmakers didn’t buy it. For example, Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., complained he had been waiting 52 weeks to learn how much money VA had spent in support of the 2012 National Veterans Golden Age Games, held in St. Louis, and attended by about 800 veterans. Huelskamp said this was a simple, factual question, and that the long delay led him to believe VA had no intention of answering.

He grilled Mooney about the delay, but she would say only that she understood his frustration and that this was one of many questions VA was working to answer.

“I don’t care if you care about my frustration. I want an answer. It seems like your responsibility today is to say, ‘We’ll get back to you on that,’ ” Huelskamp said, adding that he understands why veterans trying to get answers from VA are so frustrated.

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