Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald argued no VA hospital is "bad" in a letter to USA Today on Friday, just one day after the publication exposed an internal rating system that showed several clinics in Texas and Tennessee had received low marks.
"To be clear, no VA medical facility is bad or failing," wrote McDonald and Sloan Gibson, his deputy, in a letter that was obtained by the Washington Examiner.
"The story posted online last night completely missed the point of this remarkable and helpful improvement process and serves only to mislead and confuse Veterans and the American public," McDonald and Gibson argued.
A separate and less pointed response to the story was posted on the VA website Friday and signed only by Gibson.
But the letter to USA Today slammed the outlet for using "egregious hyperbole" in its description of the five-star rating system the VA uses to rank its hospitals relative to each other.
"What concerns all of us at VA is that USA TODAY has a consistent narrative of negativity in their news of VA," McDonald and Gibson wrote. "We have participated in editorial boards and spent hundreds of hours over the years to explain complex issues and provide data to USA TODAY reporters. Nonetheless, the outstanding and historic progress VA has made in transformation over the past two years is consistently ignored by USA Today."
USA Today has been a leader in coverage of the VA's national wait time scandal in 2014, which shook the agency to its core when whistleblowers exposed an effort to cover up long delays in care by creating fake patient waiting lists.
The epicenter of that controversy was at the Phoenix VA hospital, where veterans died while waiting to see a doctor. That facility still has one star in the VA's internal ranking system, the lowest possible grade in the five-star scale.
In just the past year, poor conditions have been found at a number of VA facilities, such as the Chicago hospital where cockroaches were discovered in the kitchen and in veterans' food, the Wisconsin clinic where a dentist potentially exposed 600 veterans to HIV or the Puerto Rico hospital where elderly veterans were neglected to the point where they were not fed, bathed or helped to go to the bathroom.