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Sunday, Apr 21, 2019
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Editorial: Nineteen deaths and the VA’s troubling silence

The public has a right to know the names of the Veterans Affairs hospitals where delays in diagnostic testing contributed to the deaths of 19 veterans. Five of those deaths occurred in a VA region that treats Florida patients and includes VA facilities in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, as well as other locations in the state.

Yet the VA has stonewalled efforts by Tribune reporter Howard Altman and members of the U.S. House Veterans Affairs Committee to learn where the deaths occurred. For months now, requests for information on those deaths and other incidents across the country involving questionable VA conduct have been met with silence or obfuscation. Frustrated members of the House committee have responded with a website called the “VA Honesty Project,” which chronicles nearly 70 times the VA has thumbed its nose at legitimate requests for information.

The VA needs to drop the secrecy routine and remember it’s a tax-funded organization that should conduct itself in as transparent a manner as possible without encroaching on patient confidentiality.

The Tribune and the House simply want the names of the hospitals, not the patients. Knowing the hospitals and getting a fuller explanation of what occurred could alert veterans and the public to any problems at those facilities.

The veterans died of gastrointestinal cancers as the result of delayed endoscopy tests between 2009 and 2011, according to information unearthed by the House committee and reported by Altman. The delays were less than a year but more than 90 days.

In addition to the 19 deaths nationwide, 63 veterans suffered medical harm because of the delays.

The VA did tell Altman it redesigned its consultation process as a result of the deaths. But this is part of the response the newspaper received to its formal request for the hospital names: The “VA may withhold information under Exemption 5 where the document or its contents makes recommendations or expresses opinions about legal or policy matters during a decision-making process and the document is not the decision document or incorporated into the decision document.”

That’s worthy of the government gobbledygook hall of fame. But it’s not worthy of our veterans. They deserve a VA system that is responsive and accountable and willing to air its failures along with its successes.

Without that, it’s impossible to know whether they are providing the best care possible.

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