Department of Veterans Affairs officials may be misleading members of President-elect Trump's transition team about the health of the agency amid a push by some outside veterans service organizations to convince Trump to keep VA Secretary Robert McDonald in his Cabinet, sources with knowledge of the situation say.
"The VA is trying to paint a much rosier picture of the state of affairs ... for the transition team than is reality," one source told the Washington Examiner.
Another source close to the "landing team" Trump sent to the VA said transition officials had received an anonymous tip from a whistleblower warning that some of the information they had been given by the agency was misleading.
The VA rejected suggestions that officials had spun the statistics provided to Trump's transition team.
"VA staff have engaged in clear, candid conversations with the transition team and continue to do so every day," the agency said in a statement provided for this story. "Challenges as, well as successes, are discussed in full context and briefings are delivered by subject matter experts. VA has provided everything that has been asked for by the transition team."
Agency officials said their "understanding" has been that transition officials have been "pleased with the candor and quality of the information provided."
But Scott Davis, a VA whistleblower and program specialist at the agency's Health Eligibility Center in Atlanta, said VA officials had provided the landing team with a deceptive assessment of the veterans' suicide hotline.
The crisis line became a lightning rod for criticism earlier this year after officials admitted roughly one in five suicidal veterans could not get through to a VA professional when they called the hotline.
VA officials have told the transition team that the agency expects to handle all calls to the suicide hotline in-house by the end of this month, ensuring every veteran in a crisis is helped by a person with the proper training and not by employees at a contracted backup call center.
In internal emails from mid-November discussing how the agency would describe the veterans crisis line to the transition team, VA officials first proposed saying that the agency "is anticipating zero rollover to contracted back-up centers by November 21, 2016." They soon agreed to move that deadline to "December 2016."
Davis said the suicide hotline discussions reflected the arbitrary nature of the deadline VA officials relayed to the transition team. It's misleading, he said, because the VA is presently extending its contract with a backup center to continue the practice of allowing veterans' calls to "roll over," even as it promises transition officials the practice will be coming to an end in a matter of weeks.
"In terms of the transition team, they're being told ... that the call center is great, everything is going well, and we're actually going to be able to move everything over to 100 percent staff-based [VA call centers] by the end of the month," Davis told the Examiner.
"That's not true based on the call volumes and it's not even true because ... you're in the process now of extending the contract, even though you know that contract is noncompliant," he added.
The VA's suicide hotline contract with a company called Link2Health Solutions was supposed to include a Business Associate Agreement, or BAA, under laws that govern healthcare. In an internal email from Dec. 8, VA officials noted "that a BAA is required" and wrote: "however [it] was not initially applied."
Setting aside the issue of whether the continued existence of the contract signals an admission that the VA can't handle veterans' suicide calls internally, Davis said the omission of the business agreement made the suicide hotline contract "invalid" to start.
What's more, Davis noted Link2Health, which has a history of spotty budgeting, has not submitted documentation about the number of suicide calls it has actually answered since July, citing a technical issue with its computer system. Davis said that excuse was akin to "the dog ate my homework."
With veteran suicide rates on the rise, the failures of the VA crisis hotline have garnered significant attention in recent months. Pressure to fix the problem prompted Congress to pass a law requiring the VA to answer all calls to its suicide line, a measure President Obama signed into law on Nov. 28.
Davis said the fact that such a law was even necessary was "an embarrassment" to the VA.
The VA argued the extension of the contract was a "commonsense measure" even though the plan is still to end the use of backup call centers within the next month.
"It is simply prudent to plan for and maintain a strong contingency plan which includes a robust rollover capability as a backup," the agency said.
Dan Caldwell, legislative director at Concerned Veterans for America, said descriptions of the VA's effort to spin information to the transition team sounded familiar.
"It would not surprise me if this was occurring, because there is still data manipulation going on all across the VA," Caldwell said. "The VA has not taken steps to eliminate many of these practices, and many of the people who were involved in the wait list scandal are still employed by the VA."
"Knowing the pace the VA has been moving at in resolving some of these issues," he added, "I don't think that it would be realistic" to expect the suicide hotline to be fixed by the end of December.
A bipartisan group of 40 House members sent a letter to Deputy VA Secretary Sloan Gibson in September demanding an explanation for why VA officials routed more than a quarter of calls to "backup facilities" instead of answering them in-house on the agency's suicide line.
"With a veteran committing suicide every 72 minutes and veteran suicide rates far surpassing those of civilians it is evident that the VA must do more to ensure our veterans are receiving the time-critical care they need," the lawmakers wrote.
Whistleblowers had long complained that the VA suicide hotline sent callers to voicemail or placed distressed veterans in the hands of operators who lacked the training to deal with suicidal situations.
The VA's inspector general uncovered the problems with the veterans' crisis line earlier this year. In a report made public in February, the agency watchdog detailed instances when the hotline had failed veterans, including a situation in which a suicidal veteran could not get an ambulance to take him to the VA hospital for three hours.
A subsequent Government Accountability Office report released in May concluded the VA allowed 27 percent of veterans' calls to roll over to a backup center, which lacked "access to veterans' VA electronic medical records" and other "additional resources" that made the VA better-equipped to handle crisis calls than outside companies.
Trump has yet to signal whom he will select to lead the VA, one of the last federal departments in his Cabinet still without a nominated secretary. On Monday, the New York Times reported that five of the "Big Six" veterans service organizations asked the transition team in a meeting last week to keep McDonald on and threatened to oppose the other individuals who have been floated as potential picks.
But Verna Jones, executive director of the American Legion, said her organization has never taken a stand on Trump's VA appointment and did not do so during the closed-door meeting with transition officials on Friday, as the Times and others reported.
"I think the context of the meeting has been misrepresented," Jones told the Examiner.
"I don't know where those reports [come from] or how those things are given — there were names mentioned in some of those reports that were never mentioned by anyone [in the meeting]," Jones said.
According to those reports, leaders of veterans service organizations told the transition team they would not accept the nominations of Rep. Jeff Miller, chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, former Sen. Scott Brown, Fox News contributor Pete Hegseth or Sarah Palin, all of whom are rumored contenders for the VA's top job.
"We certainly haven't said that if other people are chosen, we would put up a fight," Jones said of the American Legion. "We're going to continue to support whoever is in that office. End of story."
However, two of the prominent veterans service organizations have indeed taken a public stand in favor of McDonald's retention.
Joe Chenelly, the executive director of Amvets, has spoken out in favor of the current VA secretary, as has Rick Weidman, executive director for policy and government affairs of Vietnam Veterans of America. Both have pointed to McDonald's private sector experience as the former CEO of Procter & Gamble when making the case for him to stay at the VA's helm.
McDonald effectively opposes eight of the 10 proposals Trump laid out in his 10-point VA reform plan in July. For example, the VA secretary has resisted efforts to reduce bureaucratic barriers to fire bad employees, while Trump has proposed stripping those barriers away entirely. And although Trump has proposed setting up a 24-hour complaint hotline for veterans that would ring directly to his White House, the existing crisis line at the VA has been riddled with neglect and mismanagement.
If Trump were to ask McDonald to serve in his administration, the move would mark a departure from the scorn he heaped on McDonald's VA throughout the campaign.
The candidates floated to replace McDonald have been met with criticism, however. Miller and Palin lack military backgrounds, Brown has been viewed as someone who might fall short of the task of reforming the agency, and Hegseth has been accused of wanting to privatize the VA.
Davis, who works at a VA office in Atlanta, said he was open to the idea of McDonald staying on for the Trump administration, but said he should consider changing out the rest of VA leadership.
"I think if Bob is going to stay, he needs to remove everyone underneath him, and that may include firing some friends," Davis said.
"The need to fire people is not even being discussed anymore. Nobody's even worried about getting fired anymore," he said of the current VA culture. "They go, 'Who's going to fire me, Scott Brown?' Nobody's worried about that. Nobody's worried about anything anymore."