The Tomah VA Scandal, Ron Johnson, and the Inspector General

The Wall Street Journal
By: Kimberley Strassel
May 7, 2015

We’re about a year out from the uproar over Department of Veterans Affairs patient waiting lists, and a few months into a new VA scandal. The new scandal is that we don’t know what other scandals there are.

Congress is trying to find out, teeing up an unprecedented battle between the Senate and an investigator who in theory exists to help the Senate: the VA’s inspector general. At issue are thousands of pages of documents that may well reveal significant new areas of department dysfunction, but which the current acting inspector general is point-blank refusing to turn over to congressional overseers. The moment ought to be inspiring a debate over President Obama’s willful obstruction of rigorous IG oversight.

This saga begins in 2011, when the Veterans Affairs’ IG was alerted by members of Congress and whistleblowers to the potential of dangerous overprescription of opiates at the VA’s Tomah facility in Wisconsin. The IG’s office commenced a plodding, three-year investigation. Today’s acting IG, Richard J. Griffin (who took over in 2013), closed that investigation in March 2014, but he did not alert Congress to the fact or make the report public. Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, who runs the Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs, didn’t even find out about the existence of the report until this January, and only to discover it was a mere 11 pages and said claims of wrongdoing could not be substantiated.

This finding was mind-boggling given an account in January from the Center for Investigative Reporting showing that the number of Tomah opiate prescriptions had quintupled over eight years, despite fewer patients. Veterans refer to the facility as “Candyland.” Mr. Johnson at a field hearing in March heard from Marvin Simcakoski, whose 35-year-old son died of an overdose there in August 2014. The hearing revealed three additional deaths and included testimony by Tomah employees who had been fired after raising concerns about—or refusing to fill—narcotics prescriptions. One psychologist committed suicide after being terminated.

Even the VA was more critical of itself than was the IG. The department released its own internal investigation of Tomah in March, finding opiate prescription rates 2.5 times the national average, higher average doses, “unsafe clinical practices” and “patient harm” as the result of overprescription.

Mr. Johnson, determined to get to the bottom of Tomah, asked the IG in February to turn over its broader investigative file. The IG’s office has to this day refused to do so, initially (and belligerently) claiming Congress has no “legitimate oversight purpose” for the file, and throwing up all kinds of excuses about statutory bars (including privacy laws) to its release. This is all nonsense, given that inspectors general exist to aid Congress in oversight and that the laws in question therefore have express exemptions for disclosing information to legislators.

Then again, nondisclosure seems to be a habit with this IG office—ranging across years and different officials. USA Today reported in March that the office has conducted 140 health investigations since 2006 that had never been made public. Under growing pressure, the IG finally released them late last week, and the newspaper ran a follow-up noting that the cases ranged from “missed diagnoses” to “failures during surgery” to “misuse of funds” to “personnel issues” to yet more facilities that may be giving “questionable amounts or combinations of narcotics.” In many cases, said the newspaper, “the department’s chief watchdog trusted the VA to correct problems on its own.” Really?

The devotion to secrecy suggests a jarring problem in the entire culture of the Veterans Affairs’ IG office, one that is a little too cozy with the object of its investigative mandate. The whole point of an IG is to blow the whistle on executive-branch failings. Most inspectors general border on fanatic in their oversight, are big into transparency, and have strong working relationships with congressional investigators. By contrast, Mr. Johnson last week was forced to take the extraordinary (and potentially unprecedented) step of issuing a subpoena for IG documents.

The episode is also raising questions about whether President Obama perhaps likes it this way. Mr. Griffin has been the supposedly temporary acting IG at Veterans for more than two years, an uncertainty that may in itself be feeding into office problems. He’s still there because Mr. Obama has failed to appoint a permanent head. In March, all 16 members of Mr. Johnson’s committee—Republicans and Democrats—wrote to Mr. Obama noting that there were 10 IG vacancies, including for such not-so-minor posts as Interior, the CIA and Export-Import Bank. They noted that there were nominations pending for only two of the 10, and requested he move quickly to fill the rest.

Then again, if you are the president, wracked by scandals and mismanagement in your administration, it might be convenient to put IG nominations on the back burner. The conduct of the VA is one of those big scandals, and the cursory evidence suggests the department could still harbor a lot of secrets.

The next time Democrats complain that a GOP Senate isn’t acting on an Obama nomination, Republicans might point out the more important nominations that they are still waiting for.