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Some employees have lost faith in inspector general to root out problems at troubled Atlanta office.

By Brad Schrade- The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
5:38 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 10, 2014

Federal investigators with the VA inspector general’s office appear to be in the final stages of an inquiry into alleged mismanagement and mishandling of hundreds of thousands of health applications at the Veterans Affairs national enrollment office in Atlanta.

But some employees at the national Health Eligibility Center (HEC) are critical of the investigation and say officials with inspector general’s office are not vigorously pursuing leads they are giving them. They question if the investigation will get to the bottom of what they say are systemic problems with the VA’s health enrollment system.

The VA inspector general’s office has faced heightened scrutiny and criticism for the way it appeared to dilute the findings of its investigation into patient wait times earlier this year. That scandal emanated from the Phoenix VA but exposed long waits at veterans hospitals across the country.

“The general consensus is they are just marking off the boxes,” said Melissa Mason, an HEC whistleblower who said she spoke to investigators last week. “It was just a show. Nobody has faith in the IG.”

The inspector general’s office declined an interview request, but a spokeswoman for Acting Inspector General Richard Griffin issued a statement that explained the agency’s efforts in Atlanta.

“The OIG’s review of the allegations related to the Health Eligibility Center is ongoing,” said spokeswoman Cathy Gromek. “We will conduct more interviews as necessary as we continue to review documents and information. We have interviewed HEC staff including the complainant. We will work diligently in conducting this review and will publicly report on the results when it is complete.”

Based in a nondescript DeKalb County office building just north of I-85, the center oversees the critical enrollment process for millions of veterans nationwide who seek care within the VA medical system. Essentially, the HEC acts as the gatekeeper to VA health services; without enrollment approval veterans cannot access health benefits to which they are entitled.

Following a wave of complaints from employees at the HEC, the inspector general started investigating problems with the center’s processing and recordkeeping early this year. Investigators have yet to issue a report of their findings.

Frustrated by the oversight process in VA and doubting the IG’s intentions, one of the HEC employees, Scott Davis, spoke to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for a June article detailing allegations that thousands of veterans health applications had been purged from the system. He also described a backlog of hundreds of thousands of unprocessed veterans health applications stuck in an administrative limbo without an enrollment decision and he described his frustration as a whistleblower trying to get VA management and the White House to look into the problems.

That article caught the attention of Congressional investigators, who have launched their own inquiry into the HEC. Davis testified before the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs in July. Afterward, committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., asked the inspector general to also investigate the allegations.

Miller has criticized VA for a myriad of management failures and for its treatment of whistleblowers. He’s also been critical of the inspector general’s office for downplaying problems at the VA and withholding damaging reports about the agency from Congress and the public. He said the inspector general, which reports to the VA secretary, lacks the independence necessary to conduct proper oversight of the agency, particularly with Griffin, who has been the VA’s deputy inspector general since November 2008, also serving as acting head of the office since January.

“The Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General has demonstrated time and again it is far from the independent watchdog it claims to be,” Miller told the AJC in a written statement. “Given the department’s history of misleading statements and subterfuge regarding a range of issues, it’s time for President Obama to nominate a permanent VA inspector general who will conduct investigations and produce reports that explain problems in concise and unambiguous language while drawing clear lines of accountability to VA employees who are responsible for mismanagement that harms veterans.”

VA officials declined a request to interview HEC management for this story. VA public affairs officials say they don’t comment on ongoing investigations. On a visit to Atlanta Wednesday, VA Secretary Robert McDonald said that “the vast majority of employees believe the inspector general is doing (his) job.”

He said he’s asked Griffin’s office “to be tough on us,” and said he did not believe the office under Griffin’s leadership had been hampered by his acting status.

“I think they are doing a good job,” McDonald said. “I appreciate when they criticize us. We can’t get better unless we know where we are going wrong. So I’m looking forward to their report.”

McDonald said he does not know when a permanent inspector general will be named, but filling the position remains his priority.

The chief HEC whistleblower, Davis, said he and other employees have been unimpressed by the inspector general’s efforts. He said employees have provided documents and emails to back up allegations. Yet investigators don’t seem to grasp the problems or they don’t seem to want to dig deep in their inquiry, he said.

Davis said it took months after his Congressional testimony for inspector general investigators to contact him. He said they sent him a questionnaire in November that he answered. When investigators visited the HEC last week to interview employees, they set up in an office across the hall from Davis, but didn’t bother to interview him, he said.

The only followup from the November questionnaire was a request for him to provide names of the people inside the agency who had provided him information. There were no followup questions regarding the allegations that more than 800,000 health applications were frozen with no administrative decision from the agency, including more than 47,000 veterans who died while on the pending list, according to Davis.

Davis said some employees who spoke to investigators share his skepticism and doubt much will come of the inquiry. Davis said he’s been providing information to Congressional investigators and news reporters in an effort to make sure that information gets out.

“There’s significant concerns from VA staff that the preponderance of evidence provided to OIG will never make it into the final report,” Davis said. “The only way I feel the truth will come out is by notifying Congress and the media.”

Mason is among those concerned about the final report from the inspector general. She said she and other employees have been interviewed by the inspector general multiple times this year and each time they’ve outlined the same problems at the HEC.

She said she provided detailed information to investigators and even told them where to go to get the answers, yet they don’t seem to have followed up on her leads.

“Why does it take the IG eight times to get the same info and still nothing has changed?” she said.

She said if investigators don’t probe and really try to understand the intricacies of the broken enrollment system those who want to keep the problems hidden can “tap dance around it all day long.”