The Department of Veterans Affairs' stonewalling of questions is being showcased by the House Committee on Veterans Affairs on a new web page that tracks a lengthy list of refusals by agency officials to answer inquiries from the media.
The unanswered questions concern issues like patient deaths at VA hospitals due to inadequate care, backlogs of disability compensation claims, big bonuses paid to top VA administrators and the department's overall lack of transparency.
The typical response from the VA press office is to refuse comment, issue a generic written statement or ignore the request for information, based on the list of about 70 instances of agency opaqueness highlighted on the new House web site.
The VA press office has 54 full-time employees, according to official documents.
“With 54 full-time public affairs employees, VA’s media avoidance strategy can’t be anything other than intentional,” said Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House veterans’ committee.
“What’s worse, the tactic leaves the impression that department leaders think the same taxpayers who fund the department don’t deserve an explanation of VA’s conduct,” Miller said.
But in a written statement issued in response to the new website, the VA press office claimed its staff quickly responds to thousands of media inquiries every year.
“At the Department of Veterans Affairs, we strive to provide accurate and timely information as we communicate every day with America’s veterans, their families, their survivors, and the American people," the statement said.
"We understand and respect the media’s important role, and we work to ensure veterans understand our commitment to provide them the services and benefits they have earned and deserve," the statement said.
The House committee's page is called the “VA Honesty Project.” It is a companion to other pages the committee maintains dealing with the lack of transparency at the agency.
The other pages include the “VA Accountability Watch,” which pairs information about problematic offices and medical centers with data on big performance bonuses paid to their top administrators; and “Trials in Transparency,” which lists outstanding questions from the committee that have not been answered by VA.
Questions from multiple national and local media outlets are on the list of the ignored, including multiple entries from the Washington Examiner.
The agency’s press staff rarely responds to questions from the Examiner with specific answers. When there is a response, it normally is a written statement from an unnamed VA spokesperson.
Most recently, the Examiner sought detailed information for a Feb. 25 story about purging of thousands of backlogged appointments for veterans to have diagnostic tests or other medical consultations ordered by their doctors.
The Examiner submitted specific questions in writing days before the story was published. The agency's response was a general, unattributed statement that VA “cares deeply for every veteran we are privileged to serve.”
It did not answer any of the specific questions and came a day after the story was published.
The Examiner also sought to ask questions of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki after a recent congressional hearing, but he refused to answer and hurried to a waiting elevator while surrounded by staff members.
Having a congressional committee showcase an agency's failure to respond to the media is healthy but unusual, said John Wonderlich, policy director at the non-profit Sunlight Foundation, which works for government openness.
"It's useful for a congressional committee to have a collection of media accounts of how responsive an agency is being," Wonderlich said. "Too often, congressional committees don't pay attention to news coverage or the public affairs work of the agencies that they oversee."