WAFF Investigates: Veterans Affairs transparency - WAFF-TV: News, Weather and Sports for Huntsville, AL

WAFF Investigates: Veterans Affairs transparency

HUNTSVILLE, AL (WAFF) -

Around Veterans Day 2013, members of Congressdemanded the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs better serve veterans.

Iraq Veteran Manuel Hernandez of Madisonsaid his brush with death in Iraq stayed with him.

"You can imagine being a rag doll insidea dryer," he recalled, "and your body being tossed around inside my vehicle."

In Iraq in 2008 and 2009 with the army's37th Infantry Division, Hernandez had his close call on July 4, 2008 when hisconvoy was hit by an improvised explosive device buried in a road. Sincehis return, he has battled with post traumatic stress.

"It took a very long time for meafter I got back," Hernandez said. "Just from a door slamming to a carbackfiring for me not to get to that hyper alert, really state of mind where Iwas panicking for no reason at all. It's like I was afraid and runningfrom nothing."

The battles didn't end there. Hernandezhas since struggled through a new fight to get answers and help, to which he'sentitled, from the VA.

"Waiting on hold, waiting on hold," hesaid.  "Just to get questions answered, I would have to sit on the phonefor at least, I would say, half of a good day, a good six to seven hours beingput on hold."

"Unfortunately, there seems to bethis brick wall that's been put up in front of us," agreed Florida CongressmanJeff Miller, Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, who complainsthat the VA has gone months, even more than a year, without answering questionsfrom the committee – a committee specifically intended to provide oversightover the VA.

"Many of thequestions that we ask are very simple questions that can be answered in just acouple of days and it's taken us weeks and months to get answers," Millercomplained.

To publicize itsproblems getting answers, the committee has launched a website, Trials inTransparency, listing requests for information it has sent the VA, to which theVA hasn't responded. As of November, the site lists 111 such requestsoutstanding. Those inquiries include letters to VA Secretary Eric Shinsekiasking about:

  • Bonuses given toVA administrators, even as their service centers deteriorated
  • The hacking ofthe VA's computer system, discovered in the spring of 2013, which compromisedveterans' personal information
  • A deadlylegionnaires' disease outbreak at a VA hospital revealed in the fall of 2012

Some of therequests, still unanswered, date back to June of 2012.

"When it becameapparent that we weren't going to get it in 30 days or 60 days or six months ora year," Miller said, "it became very important for us to make sure that thepublic understands that we were not getting the answers that we were askingfor."

Under questioning by the Committee, VArepresentatives did provide some answers.

"Unfortunately, sometimes the sheervolume of work that we receive impedes our ability to provide complete answersin a timely way," testified Joan Mooney, Department of Veterans AffairsAssistant Secretary for Congressional and Legislative Affairs in an appearancebefore the Committee in September.

"On more complicated requests thatrequire interdepartmental concurrence or with our partners at Labor orDepartment of Defense, sometimes responses stake longer as that adds to thecomplexity," she continued.

"You can imagine, if the chairman of theVA committee in the U.S. House of Representatives can't get a questionanswered, how is a veteran or an individual out there going to be able to getquestions answered?" asked Miller.

According to the Huntsville veteransadvocacy group Still Serving Veterans, the VA bureaucracy can become nearimpenetrable for veterans, at a time when they need help and answers.

"We have people that come to us that arefrustrated," said Still Serving Veterans Director William Koch. "The timebetween the time of filing a claim and actually getting a decision, sometimesthat's up to two years. That is painful, particularly if it's a debilitatingdisability."

Hernandez said he hears a recurringmessage from those VA workers he does manage to reach.

"They basically apologize," he said."They know that the system is flawed. They are very apologetic. They say, ‘I'mreally sorry that you're having to deal with this. It's a flawed system.'"

The Department of Veterans Affairs senta statement saying, "VA is committed to appropriate oversight of its activitiesand wise use of taxpayer dollars. VA will continue to respond to congressionalrequests for information with a focus on providing information that is accurateand timely."

"We can. We must. And we will dobetter," said Mooney in her appearance before Congress.

"I wish I could say that it was making adifference, but unfortunately I think they've gone deeper in a hole," frettedMiller.

Miller said he's now considering moreaggressive steps to get answers from the VA, all the way up to subpoenaing VAofficials to testify under oath and under threat of perjury, although he hopesit doesn't come to that.

"We will continue to keep the pressureon them," Miller said.

"Veterans stood up, said ‘I'll defend thiscountry.' And we should take care of them," said Koch.

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