House panel chides VA over data requests

The House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, which oversees programs affecting veterans, said Tuesday that it will use its website to highlight the inquiries it says the VA has failed to answer. The panel says its “Trials in Transparency” page will keep a running record of outstanding requests for information.

The committee said it has 95 pending requests. Examples include a July 2012 request for data on the department’s hiring of mental health workers and a September 2012 request for information about conference spending. The panel also cited a January 2013 request for all documents and emails since 2007 discussing the presence of legionella bacteria within the VA’s Pittsburgh health facilities, where an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease is blamed in the deaths of five veterans.

Department officials said they respond to a large number of congressional queries, conducting in the past two-and-a-half years more than 1,800 briefings and processing about 67,500 inquiries from members of Congress and their staff.

“VA is committed to appropriate oversight of its activities and the wise use of taxpayer dollars while we continue our work together serving veterans and their families,” department spokeswoman Victoria Dillon said.

Tensions frequently arise between all departments and the congressional committees that oversee their programs, but such friction has been particularly noticeable with the federal government’s second largest department. Lawmakers have frequently chided VA witnesses during congressional hearings about what they perceive as a lack of cooperation. The frustration extends to Democrats on the committee as well as Republicans.

“Congress is committed to working with VA in an open and transparent manner,” said Rep. Mike Michaud, the ranking Democrat on the committee. “Our partnership, however, is contingent upon the department’s timely response to our requests for information, something that rarely occurs. I hope VA leadership will work to reverse this trend of unresponsiveness.”

In recent months, the chairman of the committee, Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., has taken to writing weekly letters to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki listing the number of outstanding information requests.

Miller said that getting timely information is critical to determining the VA’s future challenges and its capabilities for overcoming them. The committee said a dozen of the outstanding requests date to 2012.

The congressional panel also has sparred with the agency over the backlog in processing disability claims.

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