GovWatch: Congressmembers travel, Pentagon sits pretty, veteran dies

Federal lawmakers and their staffs don’t have to be quite as upfront about taking lobbyist-funded trips after a change quietly snuck into U.S. House rules.

The change does away with the requirement that lawmakers report free trips on their financial disclosure forms. The change was first reported by the National Journal; there was no public announcement.

“Removing the travel disclosure requirement from the annual disclosure form is a blatant attempt to avoid accountability,” Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, told the Associated Press.

Lawmakers are still required to provide a detailed report of free trips to the House clerk, which posts that information on its website.

Rest assured, the I-Team will be watching those reports.

In September, the I-Team reported that sending members of Congress traipsing the globe cost taxpayers more than $3.6 million since the beginning of 2011. These were publicly funded trips, as opposed to the lobbyist-funded trips affected by the recent change.

We found trips to such non-strategic vacation hot spots as Italy, Ireland, Monaco and Malta.

And, we found, disclosed costs did not include VIP military flights that could cost up to $10,000 an hour to operate. Those costs are not publicly reported.

We will continue to keep federal lawmakers accountable as they use your money or accept junkets from lobbyists, even if — fingers crossed — we have to go to Monaco to do so.

Man dies before getting VA appointment

We now turn to Massachusetts for another example of an issue uncovered by the I-Team getting worse before it gets better: concerns about wait times for medical care at Veterans Affairs hospitals.

Suzanne Chase of Acton, Mass., last month received a letter from the VA saying her husband could make an appointment with a primary care physician.

Problem was, he died in August 2012.

“I was in complete disbelief,” Chase told CBS News, which reported the story.

Her husband, Doug, was a Vietnam veteran who was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2011. She tried to move him to the VA hospital in Bedford in 2012, the news station reported, so he could be closer to his family.

The VA’s response was far too little, far too late.

CBS News said the letter concluded with: “We are committed to providing primary care in a timely manner and would greatly appreciate a prompt response.”

Earlier this month, the I-Team analyzed solutions proposed by area veterans to ongoing concerns of the quality and timeliness of care at VA medical centers. This included giving the VA more money, hiring more doctors, letting veterans seek care elsewhere and giving the agency the power to discipline poor performers.

Pentagon asks for $59B just in case

While VA hospitals may be lacking resources, the Pentagon is not.

On top of its $496 billion budget, the U.S. Department of Defense is requesting a Overseas Contingency Operations budget — “just in case” money — of $59 billion.

Watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense released an analysis this month that notes the contingency request is enough money to nearly fund the departments of Labor, Interior and Commerce as well as the Social Security Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, The National Science Foundation and the Corps of Engineers.

The VA’s entire annual budget is $65 billion.